Betty White speaks onstage during the 70th Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on Sept. 17, 2018, in Los Angeles.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images/TNS
By Brent Lang
Legendary comedian Betty White died on Friday at the age of 99, having left a legacy of indelible sitcom hits that includes “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Golden Girls.”
White’s career was also notable for its longevity, and she worked well into her tenth decade. Todd Milliner, an executive producer on TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland,” was able to observe the master comedian and actress up close as she became one of the only octogenarians to experience an improbable career resurgence. As Elka Ostrovsky, the widowed caretaker of the Ohio manor where the show’s three coastal refugees (played memorably by Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendie Malick) take up residence, White got all the best lines. She was saucy, cranky, sexually liberated and maintained a rebel spirit; her character enjoyed bending the law and, it was hinted, was averse to a good toke.
For Milliner, “Hot in Cleveland” presented a chance to work with a legend whom he had grown up revering thanks to her turns as the sweet-natured Rose Nylund on “Golden Girls” and the man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens on “Mary Tyler Moore.”
Here, Milliner pays tribute to his friend and remembers the highlights of their collaboration on “Hot in Cleveland,” which included quickly moving White from guest star to series regular and staging a pseudo “Mary Tyler Moore Show” reunion that brought back Moore, Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper and Georgia Engle (who was already recurring). Milliner’s comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.
It was shortsightedness on our part and a little bit of hesitancy on Betty’s part to commit to another series, but she was only supposed to be a guest star on “Hot in Cleveland,” not a regular. It was right around the time when she was popping again in everything — there was the Snickers commercial, she’d just done “The Proposal” and it was right before “SNL”.
When we did the pilot, it was such a magical experience and the audience loved her so much, that we looked at each other and said, “Oh shit, we better sign her up for all of this.” She was worried about committing to doing 24 episodes a year, but she liked working with the ladies so much as an ensemble that she was able to be convinced to sign up for the whole thing.
She was all-in. She was game for everything. We purposely tried to stay away from the more risqué topics, but any time we brought something to her that we worried would cross the line, she’d say it at the table read and there’d be a ton of laughs. She was willing to go to a lot of places. Just like “Golden Girls,” the show was about a group of women who were having active sex lives at an age where women aren’t usually shown on TV having active sex lives.
She was a generous performer. Even when the camera wasn’t on her in a scene, she’d be smiling in support of her co-star. Everybody adored her and her talent. There was never a complaint about Betty. On “Hot in Cleveland,” for maybe the only time in my career, there were no problems on the show over six seasons. And with Betty’s attitude on that stage, it set a tone from the top down that we all had to be kind and considerate to everybody.
I’ve seen all these social media posts with people sharing memories of Betty White being so kind and so nice. I’m not surprised. Every day she came in thoughtful and considerate and ready to work. I don’t ever remember seeing her in a bad mood. The worst day she had was a table read we had the morning after [her “Golden Girls” co-star] Rue McClanahan died. She was so sad because she’d gotten the news. She was still great, but it was also the saddest I’d ever seen Betty.
I grew up watching so many episodes of “Mary Tyler Moore” that it was outrageous when we had the show with all those actresses. There was tons of press around it. It felt like the NCAA tournament or something — there was so much interest that we had to have a press conference. I found myself visiting Mary Tyler Moore’s dressing room and she was so kind. She had me sit down so she could share all her memories of working with Betty. Cloris Leachman was just as crazy and funny and fun off stage as she was on stage. And she was completely off-book immediately. All of the women were pros.
There is a chunk of scripts every season that you know is great and then there’s a group that you wish were better and a bunch of them that live in-between. Every time we knew we were doing one of those episodes that we wished we could improve, we also knew that Betty could and would save us. She turned phrases or lines into comic gold in these instinctual ways. If she flubbed a line, her timing with the live studio audience was impeccable. She’d take a moment and then look at them and say something like “It’s cruel to laugh at your elders.” And people would just erupt.
I’m a gay man who watched every episode of “Golden Girls.” It was some sort of rite of passage for me. And then I caught up with her on reruns of “Mary Tyler Moore.” I was a fan of every chapter of her career. There’s probably an academic course on why these iconic female shows like “Golden Girls” or “Designing Women” became such a tapestry of growing up LGBTQ in a certain era. I can’t speak for others, but my relationships with older women were so important in my life that I loved seeing older women be very, very funny on those shows.
I was so sad when I heard that Betty had passed, because she was a friend and I loved her so much and because it was kind of a marker of time, and “Hot in Cleveland” was such an important time in my life. And then I thought, I’m going to knock it off and think about what Betty stood for and meant. Her legacy isn’t just about her impact as a wonderful comedic actress. We honor her because she was so full of kindness — kindness to people, kindness to animals and kindness to the world. That’s pretty rare right now.
If we all just figured out a way to live a little bit more like Betty White, then 2022 and beyond will be a whole lot better.