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For several years my newspaper jobs, first at the Akron Beacon Journal in the 1960s and later at the Providence Journal, included what I considered a great perk – the opportunity to interview celebrities. (The added bonus, much of the time, was a free meal at a good restaurant.)

A list of the celebrities I interviewed would not impress most people who are in their early 40s, or younger. Most of the actors and singers I talked to have since retired, drifted into obscurity or died. Several of them live on via cable television's Turner Classic Movies, but that channel appeals mostly to people, like me, who are receiving Social Security.

Oddly, the person on my list who probably is best known these days is a performer enjoying renewed popularity – at the age of 90. That's right, it's Betty White.

I met Betty White in Cleveland in January, 1963. The photo (above, left) appeared with my story in the Beacon Journal. There was no photo credit in the story, but I'm sure it was taken during our interview. I began my story like this:

Definition:

BETTY WHITE – (1) A bubbly, friendly conversationalist, often seen on TV's "Tonight Show." (2) A video game player and popular panel member, as in "Password" or "To Tell The Truth." (3) A sometime actress, usually given a light comedy role. (4) A good-looking bachelor girl in her mid-30s – she looks younger in person – who enjoys being single.

Obviously, the phrase "video game player" has a different meaning today. At the time I meant Betty White was often a celebrity contestant on TV game shows. Also, I was a few years off on her age. My interview with Betty White took place on January 15, which – unbeknownst to me at the time – was two days before her 41st birthday.

In January 1963 she was twice married, twice divorced. Her first marriage, in 1945 to Army Air Force pilot Dick Barker, lasted only a few months. In 1947 she married Lane Allen, an agent, and they divorced two years later.

So when I met her she had been single for more than 13 years and seemed to prefer it that way. (Little did anyone know at the time that five months later she would marry "Password" host Allen Ludden.)

If anyone in 1963 had correctly forecast the career path Betty White would take from then on, that prediction would have been dismissed as ridiculous. Even White herself must be astounded at how things turned out.

With that in mind, and knowing now that ten years down the road, on September 15, 1973, Betty White would kick-start her acting career with the image-changing role of Sue Ann Nivens in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," it was interesting for me to re-read the rest of the story that came out of my Cleveland interview.

Betty White was in Cleveland last week at guest on KYW's "Mike Douglas Show."** She was in a familiar atmosphere – a live, informal program that featured plenty of amiable small talk.

White certainly did nothing to destroy her reputation. She impressed viewers as one of show business' all-time nice people.

"I like to change occasionally," she sighed. "I tried for years to get a serious dramatic role, but no one gave me a chance until recently when I co-starred with Harry Townes on the 'U. S. Steel Hour.' Thanks to that performance I'll be doing other dramatic shows later this year."

As you might expect from someone who has been sweet for so many years, White wants to be wicked once in a while.

"I think folks would be surprised to see what a convincing witch I could be," she said.

It has taken White a long time to put a dent in her image ... and only because that sugar coating is so strong.

She began earning her title as "Miss Agreeable" in 1951 when she tackled a Los Angeles television assignment that might have turned an ordinary person into an old grouch.

White headed a local variety show that ran five and a half hours a day, six days a week. She was on the air at least 33 hours a week for four years.

"That was in the early days of television," she recalled, "and the people in charge thought TV would operate like radio ... you know, give someone four or five hours to fill at a time.

"I worked with Al Jarvis, who had been a disc jockey for 18 years. He believed he could do on television what he had done on radio ... so we tried playing records on our first program.

"That experiment lasted one day. Al and I just stood there doing nothing while the music played. Naturally people didn't like it, but Al was reluctant to give it up.

"He played records after that, but not very often. When he did, he'd have the camera focus on a bowl of goldfish or some other weird shot that might make it interesting. No matter how hard he tried, records never went over with our audience."

The show also left White shockproof. Nothing surprises her anymore.

"We worked in a small studio that had a door leading directly to the street. People passing outside would hear strange noises and open the door. As soon as they peeked inside, they were on camera. We never knew what to expect."

White's show also proved a stumbling block to a group of Los Angeles video employees when they first attempted to form a union.

"Since most performers were on the air only 30 to 60 minutes each week, they tried to establish a half-hour pay scale. They had to make an exception for me. If I had gotten paid by the half-hour, I would have become a millionaire. By this time i was doing a nighttime show in addition to the afternoon marathon."

She started a skit on that nighttime show called "Alvin and Elizabeth." The skit eventually developed into White's first network series, "Life With Elizabeth."

"This chopped my schedule to a half-hour, five days a week," she said. "Honest, I felt like I was stealing money with those hours. I almost asked if I could sweep out the studio to help earn my keep. And yet I was working more than most TV people."

White jumped from "Elizabeth" to another romantic comedy series, "Date With the Angels," which lasted 39 weeks.

"I hated that show," she said. "It seemed like we were doing 'Life With Elizabeth' all over again. I'd look at the scripts each week and think, 'Oh no! They can't be serious.' But they were. I was glad when the show ended.

"The trouble with a lot of situation comedy shows is they take a joke that can be told in five minutes and puff it up to a half hour."

Her third and final series was "The Betty White Show," carried briefly by ABC in 1957.

"I decided to freelance after that and I'm still at it. Freelancing has worked out well ... especially in the financial department ... and I hope it continues that way. Then I'll never have to try another series."

Her current schedule has her appearing on panel shows, game shows and talk shows ... and several commercials each year. She also does summer stock.

Her most regular recent TV appearances – aside from the commercials, that is – were on Jack Paar's old "Tonight Show."

White says the exchanges with Paar were always in a spirit of fun.

"The only times I got upset at Jack were when he tried to play Cupid. He just can't believe people are single because they want to be."

Paar arranged a meeting between White and Phil Cochran, an Air Force officer and longtime bachelor (the inspiration for Milt Caniff's "Flip Corkin," in the old "Terry and the Pirates" comic strip).

"It was lonelyhearts on the hoof," said White. "I never expected Phil would show up. Naturally I expected we'd hate each other, but we didn't. As a matter of fact, Phil and I began dating, but we never told Jack. He found out anyway and continued to kid me whenever I was on his show.

"Everything else we said was in fun, but the audience didn't think so. Jack realized people thought he was being mean to me, but Jack loved it.

"He'd lean toward me during a commercial and tell me to keep the conversation moving. Sure, he got complaints for picking on 'poor Betty White,' but he knew what he was going. Just look at how successful he was playing the villain."

Betty White could fill an attic with the industry awards she has collected. All but one of those awards is for work she did after her 50th birthday.

She has never stopped working and is liable to show up anywhere, from a recurring role on a daytime soap opera ("The Bold and the Beautiful") to being host of "Saturday Night Live."

Sue Ann Nivens helped her prove she could play a witch, albeit with broad, comic overtones. She went back to being a naive goody-goody as Rose Nylund in "The Golden Girls," but later was memorable as a gossipy blackmailer in several episodes of "Boston Legal." For the past three seasons she has co-starred on "Hot in Cleveland" and is about to launch an NBC series, "Off Their Rockers," which is described as an senior citizen version of "Punk'd," which will have old folks playing tricks on young people.

In many ways Betty White was the most amazing celebrity I ever met, at least, in the female division. But her story is no more remarkable than the one created by the 68-year-old comedian I met in California during the summer of 1964. George Burns was at a low point in his life and his career when I interviewed him in connection with "Wendy and Me," a television series he was about to do with Connie Stevens.

Burns' wife and long-time comedy partner, Gracie Allen, was dying – she passed away about a month after our interview – and he looked and moved as though he would soon join her. But he gamely carried on, although "Wendy and Me" didn't even last one season.

However, in 1975, at the age of 79, Burns co-starred in "The Sunshine Boys," and wound up winning an Academy Award as best supporting actor. Other movies – including "Oh, God!" – kept Burns busy for several years. He died in 1996 six weeks after observing his 100th birthday.

 

** "The Mike Douglas Show" originated in 1961 in Cleveland over Westinghouse television station KYW. That station, along with a radio outlet with the same initials, had been part of an unusual swap years before between Westinghouse and NBC.

In 1965, apparently to satisfy Westinghouse officials who felt NBC had gotten the better of the deal, the FCC sent KYW and Westinghouse back to Philadelphia, with the NBC-owned station returning to Cleveland. When KYW moved to Philadelphia, so did "The Mike Douglas Show."

 

 

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John Astin Linda Evans Mary Tyler Moore
Frankie Avalon Pat Finley Ozzie and Harriet Nelson
Barbara Barrie Eric Fleming Hugh O'Brian
Bill Bixby Peter Fonda Pat O'Brien
George Burns Anthony Franciosa Gene Pitney
Michael Callan Annette Funicello Martha Raye
Richard Chamberlain Zsa Zsa Gabor Della Reese
Leslie Charleson Beverly Garland Carl Reiner
Petula Clark Jackie Gleason Barbara Rush
Dabney Coleman Merv Griffin Robert Ryan
Robert Conrad Mark Harman Henry Silva
Bill Cosby Patricia Harty Julie Sommars
Joseph Cotten Marty Ingels Barbra Streisand
Bob Crane Jack Jones The Three Stooges
Richard Crenna Jack Kelly The Supremes
Ken Curtis Dave Ketchum Dick Van Dyke
Bill Dana Sue Ane Langdon Jerry Van Dyke
Bobby Darin Sheldon Leonard Robert Vaughn
Sammy Davis Jr. Jack Lord Clint Walker
Richard Deacon George Maharis Ray Walston
Bob Denver Jackie Mason Betty White
James Drury Raymond Massey Andy Williams
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