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Johanna Schneller: Fame Game

The Betty White tornado Add to ...

“Sickeningly optimistic.” That’s how Betty White described herself during a recent telephone interview. And why shouldn’t she be? She’s been spreading White Fever for 89 years now, and the bout she reignited in 2009 with a blockbuster movie ( The Proposal), a smash Super Bowl ad and an Emmy win (her sixth, for hosting Saturday Night Live) shows no signs of abating.

Her hit TV show, Hot in Cleveland, netted her a Screen Actors Guild Award in January, and was recently renewed for a third season. Her latest book – her fifth – entitled If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t), debuted this week at No. 4 on The New York Times hardcover non-fiction bestseller list, right behind books by Tina Fey, Steven Tyler and Rob Lowe. And this fall she’ll host a new show on NBC, Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, in which the elderly punk the young.

“I’m the luckiest old broad on two feet,” White said. “I don’t have the foggiest notion why it’s happening. I’m just tasting it and enjoying it.”

She sure works for it. She wrote her book, in longhand (she has beautiful penmanship), in snatches over nine months. Her publisher, Putnam, was eager to capitalize on White Fever, and she agreed because the deal included a second book about the importance of zoos, one of her passions. If You Ask Me is more a collection of musings than a linear memoir, but the picture that emerges is of a sincere, indefatigable woman who calls everyone (including me) “honey” or “darling,” and who makes her own luck by saying yes way more often than no.

White has an authenticity born of professionalism that is rarely seen any more. Her first TV job was co-hosting one of TV’s first shows, Hollywood on Television, a local Los Angeles variety program that ran five and a half hours a day, six days a week – live. The medium was so new that during the first week, White’s co-host, who had come from radio, played records on the air while he and White talked in the background. People kept calling in wanting to know what they were saying, so they made it a talk show.

“It was like going to college,” White said. “You had to think on your feet. I’m very grateful for it. You get to know how people accept things.”

She quickly learned what worked for her, and stuck with it: a style of comedy I’ll call the Candy-Coated Chili Pepper, because it starts out sweet and then zaps you with a zinger. All three of her characters on her beloved ensemble series – The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls and now Hot in Cleveland – have a veneer of chirpiness that cracks, with exquisite timing, to reveal an underside of sarcasm, randiness or both. It allows her to have bite without meanness, while still getting off the best lines.

You can see it in the way her kindly grandma character in The Proposal spends a long time commenting on the smallness of Sandra Bullock’s breasts, and you can really see it in the mock behind-the-scenes video that White, Bullock and their co-star Ryan Reynolds made. Feeble and sweet when Bullock is around, White terrorizes Reynolds when they’re alone.

“I’m not good with the f-word,” White said. “Sandra and Ryan can rattle it off, but I don’t enjoy that language.” Beat. “So I wound up just giving him the finger.”

While a new generation discovers her on DVD and YouTube, White also knows how to play to the Viagra set, understanding the inherent comedy of a senior citizen with a sex drive. Receiving a lifetime-achievement award at the 2010 Screen Actors Guild Awards, she gushed sincerely about how lucky she’s been to work with so many in the room, and then seamlessly added, “And I may have had some of you, too.” Back on that podium again in 2011, she stroked the statuette’s bare bottom and smiled lewdly.

But there are places White won’t go, both in her book and in conversation. She doesn’t kiss and tell – “I think confidences should be kept confidential, and not exploited for my own benefit,” she said – and she doesn’t complain. Her upcoming series will capitalize on the tendency of the young to underestimate the old. But when I asked if that tendency bothered her in life, she demurred.

“Oh lord, no, they spoil you rotten,” she said. “I like to stay on my feet, because it keeps my energy going, but every time I turn around, somebody has brought a chair.” She never became jaded, she said, because, “When everybody’s as nice to you as they’ve been to me, how can you harden yourself against that?” Though she thinks the audience has “heard every joke and seen every plot, they know where you’re going from the first word out of your mouth. That’s a tough audience to surprise, and a tough one to write for,” she also thinks, “If you’re lucky enough to thoroughly enjoy it, you can always put a fresh spin on it.” And after seven decades on TV, “I almost feel the audience is a personal friend,” she said. “I feel like I can kid with them, and they’ll understand.”

An only child, White grew up in Oak Park, Ill., with parents who had “delicious senses of humour,” she said. Her father would bring jokes home, “and it was up to me to figure them out or not. All he’d say was, ‘You can take this joke to school, but I wouldn’t take that one.’ ” Her parents also took her on annual three-week camping trips in the remote High Sierras that instilled in her a lifelong love of animals and the outdoors. She’s been a supporter of the Los Angeles Zoo for 48 years and works with Denver’s Morris Animal Foundation, which helps develop animal vaccines. She’s down to one pet (after losing three last year), her golden retriever, Pontiac – “He’s on the couch with me as we speak,” she said – and admits that one whole room in her Brentwood, Calif., home is given over to stuffed animals.

She plays a monthly, low-stakes poker game with old friends from her game-show days. “I have a good poker face, I’m just not too good at playing,” she said. “Bob Stewart [who developed Password and The $25,000 Pyramid], who masterminded our game, always laughs at me – ‘She can’t get rid of her money fast enough.’” She lost her third husband, game-show host Allen Ludden ( Password), “the love of my life,” in 1981, and has no interest in dating. Nor does she believe in plastic surgery. “I had my eyes done in 1976 and I’m glad I did,” she said. “But that’s all I ever want to do. Some people I’ve known all my life, I now have to listen for their voices to recognize them. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

Her philosophy is simple, she said: “You have to stay interested in things. I always had a rule: If I tell myself I’m tired, I’ll be tired. But if I ignore it, I never get tired. There’s so many things I want to know more about that I’ll never live long enough to do. But it’s something to reach for. I have friends whom I love very much, but unfortunately they say, ‘Oh, I don’t care about that; I’m too old for that.’ They make age a bête noire, this beast that hangs over their heads. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ ” Then she has to go. Her sign-off line is old-school pro all the way: “I appreciate your plug,” she said.

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