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Betty White keeps saying yes to life's proposal

Classic Hollywood

The 'Mary Tyler Moore Show' and 'Golden Girls' actress reflects on her career. Her newest entry: 'The Proposal.'

June 17, 2009|SUSAN KING

One of the episodes on the "Best of Password" DVD set features panelist Betty White and host Allen Ludden acting as starry-eyed as teen loves Bella and Edward.

The original installment aired in the early summer of 1963, right after the two had gotten married. White and Ludden glowed with excitement as they discussed their upcoming engagements in summer stock theater.

A warm smile flashes across White's face at the mention of the episode during a recent chat at her Brentwood home. "We were going to Maine and Cape Cod," she recalls. "We were going to do 'Janus,' and I forgot the other play. We had a great time."

Though White had been a panelist on "Password," the love affair didn't begin until 1962, when the two performed in the romantic comedy "Critic's Choice" in stock. Ludden, who died in 1981 of stomach cancer, was a recent widower at the time with three children.

"He brought his three kids, and they all started courting me along with Allen," says White, now a sprightly 87. "He didn't ever say good morning or hello, it was, 'Will you marry me?' "

White, who had been married twice before, kept turning him down -- she was happily dating someone else. As it turns out, it was White's boyfriend at the time who made her realize she was falling for the "Password" host. "He told me, 'You are in love with that man; you might as well admit it.' I said, 'I am not.' He said, 'Why don't you just relax. I see it in your eyes.' Allen and I got married June 14, 1963."

In the cosmic circle of love, White aids the romance of a young couple in her new movie, Disney's romantic comedy "The Proposal," which opens Friday. In it, Ryan Reynolds plays her grandson, Andrew, who is being coerced into marrying his boss, played by Sandra Bullock, a tough-nosed book editor who'll be deported to Canada if she doesn't get hitched. White's Grandma Annie is a free spirit who says what's on her mind and pushes the two closer, with a little help from "the baby-maker" quilt.

Though White has been a staple on television for nearly six decades -- winning Emmys for her performance as the oversexed, acerbic "Happy Homemaker" Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and as the clueless and sweet Rose on "The Golden Girls" -- she's made very few feature films.

"At this age, you don't often get a good part like this," she says, relaxing in the sitting room of her expansive home, her 5-year-old golden retriever, Pontiac, chewing on a toy nearby.

"It was an old-fashioned romantic comedy, not with all that garbage they have to throw in these days. And Sandy and Ryan -- the chemistry is so good between them. And Anne Fletcher, the director, she's as nutty as the rest of us."

An animal advocate for most of her life, White also got a chance to bond with the two Samoyed puppies that play the family pet, Kevin.

"In one scene in rehearsal, I automatically took the puppy away from Ryan and held it. I thought to myself, 'That wasn't in the script. They are going to tell me not to do that.' But nobody said anything. We had to do a few retakes because he kept kissing me."

The actress is truly one of the pioneers of television. She starred from 1953 to 1955 on "Life With Elizabeth" and was one of the series' producers.

At the same time, she was doing a live 5 1/2 -hour talk show six days a week. "Anybody who came through town would come on the show," she says. "We were sort of the only game in town. It was called 'Hollywood on Television -- Hot TV.' "

On "The Golden Girls," White was originally cast in 1985 to play sexpot Blanche with Rue McClanahan set to play ditsy Rose. But it occurred to the director of the NBC comedy's pilot episode, Jay Sandrich, who had helmed numerous episodes of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," that there might be a problem with that.

"He said, 'If Betty plays another neighborhood nymphomaniac they are all going to think she's Sue Ann in another guise.' " But White initially wasn't comfortable with the idea. "I knew who Blanche was, of course," she says. "But I didn't know who Rose was."

Sandrich came to her rescue.

"He said, 'She is not dumb, but she's so naive.' He said she doesn't have a great sense of humor. He gave me the parameters, which I am forever grateful for. She was great fun to play."

White is still mourning the recent deaths of her "Golden Girls" costars Estelle Getty and Bea Arthur. "It broke our hearts to lose Estelle and it broke our hearts to lose Bea . . . ," she says softly.

Although the series left the airwaves in 1992, it has lived into its golden years in syndication.

"We're in 49 countries, and I get mail mostly from kids," she says. "The amazing thing is our biggest audience right now is college kids."

Elsewhere

The Alloy Orchestra is supplying live musical accompaniment at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' screening of the 1927 silent gangster classic "Underworld" on Friday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. www.oscars.org.

VCI Entertainment just released the first season of the 1956-62 CBS anthology series "Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre" ($40). Beautifully restored, the western series featured such high-profile guest stars as Robert Ryan, Ida Lupino and Jack Lemmon.

--

susan.king@latimes.com

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