While actress Betty White was a master of all forms of performance – radio, TV and movies – the 99-year-old was often quick with a quip, too.
The legendary performer, who passed away on New Year’s Eve (only a couple of weeks shy of turning 100), once told People magazine that she was “born a cock-eyed optimist”. An only child, White shared that she got her can-do attitude from her homemaker mother, Tess, but credited her electrician father, Horace, as the source of her comedic prowess.
As such, it seems only fitting to pay tribute to the show-business legend by sharing some of her most fantastic quotes and one-liners.
White grew up in Beverly Hills, where she began her professional career working in radio, quickly becoming one of the most famous female disc jockeys in Los Angeles. She then moved into television, where she had her own talk show and starred in many comedies. She become a regular on game shows such as Match Game and Password, both hosted by her husband.
The pair had met in 1961 and were married two years later. “I [initially] didn’t want to get married. I was a California girl, he was a New York guy,” she told Gannett News Service in 1991.
“He would call me from wherever he was working and say, ‘You wanna go out to dinner? You wanna have a date?’ And I’d say ‘Sure!’ Well, going out to dinner meant he’d stop on the way home and pick up a chicken and put it on the barbecue outside. There’s a room behind the house, and we’d go out there and put on a stack of records, have our barbecue dinner and dance,” she told USA Weekend years later.
White never remarried after her husband’s death in 1981.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, White was a regular guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where she would partake in skits involving scanty costumes. “I told Johnny, ‘Every time you want to take your clothes off, you call me to help you out,'” she joked with USA Today in a 2011 interview.
“I don’t care who anybody sleeps with,” she said in a 2010 interview for Parade magazine. “If a couple has been together all that time – and there are gay relationships that are more solid than some heterosexual ones – I think it’s fine if they want to get married. I don’t know how people can get so anti-something. Mind your own business, take care of your affairs and don’t worry about other people so much.”
Her advocacy for the LGBTQ community quickly made her an icon within the community. “Throughout my career, I’ve always portrayed characters that were humorous, but also weren’t afraid to speak their minds, especially when it came to racy or controversial topics. I think this struck a chord with the LGBT community,” she told Frontier LA in 2011.
For decades, White worked with the Morris Animal Foundation and the LA Zoo, earning her the National Humanitarian Medal from the American Humane organisation in 2012.
But in true cheeky Betty White fashion, she said in an interview in 2020, “Animal lover that I am, a cougar I am not. All my life … I have preferred men older than I am. Unfortunately, today, I don’t think there is anyone older than I am!”
White called her 1973 role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Sue Ann Nevins “icky sweet”. The role was instantly iconic, winning her two Emmy awards. White later remarked, “Of course, I loved Sue Ann. She was so rotten. You can’t get much more rotten than the neighbourhood nymphomaniac.”
In her 1987 interview with USA Today, White spoke about her most famous role as Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. “One of the reasons The Golden Girls works is that little kids love it. They don’t have grandmothers at home anymore. Here’s Grandma being funny. Here’s Grandma being silly. Grandma didn’t fall off the Earth when she turned 50. Grandma is a viable human being. And if the rest of the world can find that, kids can find that, too,” she said.
On receiving the 2010 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, White told USA Today, “Oh my goodness, it’s something you don’t even imagine. Have you seen the other ones who have gotten this award? I don’t belong.”
Recent recipients include James Earl Jones, Julie Andrews and Shirley Temple Black.
Short or long term, there was no doubt about it, White loved the work she did. One of her most famous quotes was, “What could be better than show business?”