1.7.22 My 2009 chat with Betty White on “Golden Girls,” the Queen Mum and skeletons in the closet
Back in 2009, I was just getting into full-time freelancing when I learned that “The Golden Girls” was coming to the Hallmark Channel in reruns. I’d done some work for them already, and asked the delightful press rep Pam if I could do some kind of “Golden Girls” package. I got the green light and ultimately was able to speak to Rue McClanahan and Betty White, plus several of the show’s creators. White passed away on New Year’s Eve, 2021, just weeks shy of her 100th birthday, and we’re all sadder for it. Still, she left a wonderful legacy of roles (here’s my article for TODAY on 13 of those great ones) and had a good long run. Here’s my chat with her from back in 2009.
You had such an amazing career pre-“Golden Girls”; what made you want to do another TV series?
Well, when you get writing like that, it doesn’t happen very often. They sent us a script and it was just wonderful writing. It’s awfully hard to resist. I’ll never forget the first day we went in to read the script, all of us together, and it was so much fun with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty you’d hit something over the wall and it was you’d better be ready because it was coming right back over the wall at you, and it was really fun. And it never stopped being fun for seven years.
What was it like to be with four women in lead positions on a show, of the same peer group in ages?
And we had all known each other; Rue and I had had worked together on “Mama’s Family” and Bea and I had known each other for years as friends. And the only one we didn’t know was Estelle, who came up from New York; she had been doing “Torch Song Trilogy” back there, so we all sat around the table and started to read, and started to break each other up. I mean the writing was so good, and the way it was delivered we knew we were going into something special. It was hard to not want to do another series when you get material like that.
Initially weren’t you offered the role of Blanche? And Rue Rose? What’s the story behind that?
Yes, that’s what they initially sent me the script for, and Jay Sandberg who had directed most of the “Mary Tyler Moore” shows was directing our pilot, and he said if Betty plays another neighborhood nymphomaniac they’re going to think it’s Sue Ann Nivens, just revisited. He said why not switch parts? Because Rue had played a very mild-mannered sister on “Mama’s Family” so I thought I don’t know who Rose is but let’s find out. And I loved her, I really loved her. Rue took Blanche out into orbit where I never would have had the guts to go, and she made her so special, it was great fun playing that way.
What did you think of her as a character?
I thought she was the cockeyed optimist. Life was like a musical comedy, it was always going to have a happy ending. And Jay gave me the key to the whole character: He said, “She’s never sarcastic, people can say terrible things about her mental ability and she never gets it. She takes every word for the surface meaning of that word. If you said, ‘I could eat a horse,’ she’d call the SPCA.” It was a lovely character to play, because you could play her totally innocent.
Did you model Rose off of anyone?
No, unless there’s a little personal in there, because I always hope everything has a happy ending.
What do you remember best about the “Golden Girls” days?
Oh, my goodness there were so many. The fun of playing off of each other or the first time we went to England. It was the first year, and we were invited to the Queen Mum’s variety show in London and we went over there with Thomas Harris, our producers gave us each gold watches and sent us to England and it was so exciting because I had never been in anything like that. So we did a sketch, a scene from “Golden Girls” for the Queen Mum, and we were given all the protocol of what you do and what you don’t do, and it was really a thrill to see the Queen Mum sitting up in the box.
So we did the sketch for the Queen Mum and we met her – she came back, we were all on stage and we were warned not to initiate any conversation, respond if she spoke to us but not initiate anything. So we were being so good and so quiet and all the chorus girls were lined up behind us and as she came by us, she looked at the chorus girls and said, “Look at such beautiful girls.” And I was responding, and I said, “Yes, beautiful bodies.” And she said, “Yes, beautiful bodies!” (Laughs) It really cracked me up. Oh, yes, beautiful bodies!
Were there any “secrets of the set” you remember that haven’t been discussed much? Not necessarily dirt, just like, say a bookcase where someone hid cue cards.
No, well, Estelle had a few little things. She would write key words maybe on the sugar creamer on the table, I think it was the beginning of her problem with Alzheimer’s, and we didn’t realize it and she was having more of a problem than we thought. But Rue and I would play word games, alphabet games. We’d be in the middle of a scene, the audience would be there and all that, we’d come out and play the scene and then go off and think of the next move in the word game we were playing. Which was great fun; the alphabet with automobiles, or animals or birds or stuff like that. And of course we’d try to stump each other all the time.
You were in front of a live studio audience, right?
That’s the only way to fly. I just did a guest shot on “My Name is Earl,” and it’s a one-camera show. “Boston Legal” is a one camera show but it’s a drama, and you expect that. But for comedy, a one-camera show, I haven’t done that since my first series, “Life With Elizabeth.” And you do the scene and then you do it again to get the various closeups and angles, and by the time you get through, you’ve beat the joke to death. Not my favorite way to do comedy. An audience keeps your adrenaline going.
Did you have any idea “Golden Girls” would last as long as it did?
No, no, and it was such a pleasant surprise each year. And so often, when you’re doing that kind of a show you go back in-between scenes, you go back to your dressing room and stuff like that. We didn’t. We’d be sitting around the table in the kitchen and the scene would be over – this is during rehearsal week — and we would just sit there and continue to jabber, and talk like we hadn’t seen each other. Then one day it’s camera blocking day and we’re sitting there, and just stayed there because we were visiting. And Rue told us that she was getting a divorce and we started talking about it very seriously. And she looked up, and there’s a live mic over our heads. And she said, “My God, I haven’t even told my mother!” (Laughs)
It was Bea Arthur’s choice to leave the show. Were you sad when that happened? Or was it time?
We were very sad. Susan Harris called us together, she knew that Bea didn’t want to do any more, so Susan called us in and sat us down and explained this new idea she had – it was very hard to resist (“The Golden Palace”) it was the girls sold the house and moved in and bought one of these modern hotels down in Miami and it was them running the hotel, and we had Cheech Marin as our chef, and Don Cheadle as our manager, it was a wonderful group, so we thought sure, we’ll try it. But it’s like taking one leg off a table, you take one of those four girls away and it doesn’t work with three.
You’re still quite busy and working!
I just finished the new Sandra Bullock movie (“The Proposal”), which is out June 12 and “My Name is Earl” I did the other day. It’s kind of a big part and it’ll be out March 19.
Is there anything you’d still love to do or actors you’d like to work with?
I worship Robert Redford from afar, but I don’t ever want to meet him, I just want to keep worshiping him from afar. They used to ask me that and I always said that I’d like to do a romantic love story, not a sexy story but a romantic love story, so they wrote me one and gave me my choice of leading men and I said I’d love to do it with Leslie Nielsen but he was in England. So I wrote him a note and I explained the situation, that we were going to do this movie for television and I said please say yes and I got a note back and all it said was “yes.” That was “Chance of a Lifetime.”
Ever thought of retiring?
(Laughs) That’s a joke. Why retire from something you love so much? Carol Burnett has the best answer to that; people ask her about retiring, she says you know in a stage play, a mystery play they’ll open the closet door, and there’s a skeleton hanging on that door? She says, “Well, I want that part.”
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What an excellent interview! It made me chuckle. It made me tear up.
Thank you! Betty was always able to cheer us up.
Delightful interview. I could hear her voice talking to me, sharing her enthusiasm and making me smile. Thank you.
Thank you, Sally! ❤️