One TV’s most iconic actress and Golden Girls perennial star, died at the age 99.
“Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever,” her agent and close friend Jeff Witjas told sources in a statement on Friday. “I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don’t think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again.”
White was gearing up to celebrate her 100th birthday on Jan. 17. Ahead of her centennial year, in a cover story, White opened up to PEOPLE about how she was feeling about turning 100 years old.
Of course, the iconic actress also cracked a joke about the secret to her long life, telling PEOPLE: “I try to avoid anything green. I think it’s working.”
“We are deeply saddened by the news of Betty White’s passing,” said PEOPLE editor-in-chief Dan Wakeford. “We are honored that she recently chose to work with PEOPLE to celebrate her extraordinary life and career.”
White was a warm and popular presence on the small screen, with a career that dated back to the early days of the medium and that spanned decades. Long before her hilarious turns on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ’70s and The Golden Girls in the ’80s, in 1952 she appeared in the I Love Lucy-like Life with Elizabeth, a show she also produced.
In 2010, at age 87, she enjoyed an awards-laden resurgence, when, after starring on a Snickers commercial during the Super Bowl, polls and petitions overwhelmingly named her the public’s choice to host Saturday Night Live, emcee various awards shows and even be a sergeant’s date at a Marine Corps ball. After that, she went on to star and steal scenes on the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland, even scoring an Emmy nomination — her 17th, including seven wins. In May 2012 she also debuted on the NBC comedy reality show Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, a kind of geriatric Punk’d. As always, she proved a favorite. But her passion was always animal welfare; the dues for her fan club, Bet’s Pets, went to animal rescue charities, and she received many accolades for her work for animals.
“I’m the luckiest person in the world. My life is divided in absolute half: half animals, half show business,” White once told TV Guide. “I have to stay in show business to pay for my animal work!”
As a child, she dreamed about becoming a forest ranger or a writer, only to fall in love with performing when she took the lead in the high school senior play that she wrote. She skipped college and began performing on the radio, but before launching an acting career she married twice: first to Dick Barker, a WWII pilot she wed in 1945 (the marriage lasted only a few months once he took her home to an Ohio chicken farm), then in 1947 to agent Lane Allen, who wanted her to give up showbiz.
When that marriage ended in 1949, she and an L.A. deejay named Al Jarvis got their feet wet together on local TV, which eventually paved the way for her first sitcom, the nationally syndicated Life with Elizabeth. Despite its low budget and minimal sets (indeed, the show was a series of domestic skits featuring White’s daffy Elizabeth and her exasperated husband Alvin, played by Del Moore), the show earned White her first Emmy.
Other series came and went in the ’50s, and by 1961 White appeared as a celebrity player on the daytime game show Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. A widower with three children, he proposed marriage to the actress in 1963, and she accepted that Easter. He sent her “this adorable fluffy white stuffed bunny,” she later told PEOPLE, “and in its ears were gold leaves with ruby, diamond and sapphire earrings.”
Ever after, White referred to Ludden as the love of her life. “The secret to our marriage was enthusiasm,” White said. “When I knew Allen was coming home, I would freshen my makeup and put on a new blouse.”
Ludden, 63, died of stomach cancer in 1981. They had been married 18 years, during which White triumphed from 1973–77 on The Mary Tyler Moore Show thanks to some image-busting casting. She played TV station WJM’s “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens, a relentlessly man-hungry careerist.
Though she bravely carried on after Ludden’s death, White admitted, “If one more person said, ‘Oh, you’re so strong,’ I would have decked them.”
She earned her second and third Emmy nominations while appearing on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s and became the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy Award in the category of outstanding game show host for the NBC show Just Men! in 1983. In the years immediately afterward, White’s work pace only accelerated, culminating with The Golden Girls, on which she played the lovable Rose Nylund during the show’s run from 1985–92. Rose, from St. Olaf, Minnesota, was the widow of Charlie Nylund. (Originally White was offered the role of sexy Southern belle Blanche, which ultimately went to Rue McClanahan. Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty also starred.)
Right before the show went on the air, White confided to The New York Times, “A couple of speeches Rose makes get me by the throat. All I have to do is substitute ‘Allen’ for ‘Charlie,’ Rose’s husband.”