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."