It's not uncommon for actors to be better known for the characters they portray rather than the people who they are. While fans associate Betty White with Sue Ann Nivens of The Mary Tyler Show, Rose Nylund of The Golden Girls and more recently Elka in Hot in Cleveland, there's something about those roles that, as fictional as they may be, manifest a slice of the real Betty White, be it her love for animals, her sassy sense of humor or her trusting persona.
Reuters called it: According to a 2011 poll, White is one of the most popular and most trusted celebrities across many generations. So When Houston's Brilliant Lecture Series announced that the nonprofit would host White, presented by Robert and Donna Bruni (and their giant poodle Pooka, which made an onstage appearance) and sponsored by Friends For Life, a no-kill animal shelter and adoption organization, tickets for the two shows at Wortham Theater Center on Saturday were in high demand — and sold out.
In the predominantly middle-aged female audience — many of whom were animal rights proponents, a handful were accompanied by their service dogs — a fair number had traveled more than 100 miles for the chance to hear and see the 90-year-old Illinois-native out of character. In the theater's lobby guests purchased signed copies of Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo and Brilliant Lecture-branded Betty White T-shirts before packing Cullen Theater, whose stage was framed by photos spanning White's career, from baby images to her latest accomplishments.
This wasn't a lecture or keynote, per se. In conversation with the Bayou City's FOX 26 Morning News anchor José Griñan, listeners didn't get any new or groundbreaking intel from this delightful dame. Her life in the spotlight has been widely publicized: White is open about her interests and her seven published books tell it all.
"I don't want to be an activist. I am a humanitarian and an advocate for animal health and welfare. I don't get into politics or anything like that."
But hearing it straight from the source? That's something this lively turnout wanted more than anything.
Not an animal rights activist, but an advocate for animal wellness
"There's a difference," White explained. "I don't want to be an activist. I am a humanitarian and an advocate for animal health and welfare. I don't get into politics or anything like that."
White made her point clear. She stays clear from the kind of activism and lobbying that is removed from work with animals. Instead, she seeks to raise awareness about the impact animals have on human lives and to encourage others to appreciate animals rather than destroying them.
As a child, White wanted nothing more than to become a forest ranger. It was during a visit to Yellowstone National Park that this lifelong obsession began. Though at the time, it wasn't something women were "allowed" to aspire to be.
But in 2010, the U.S. Forest Service proclaimed White an honorary forest ranger during an awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Being greeted by Smokey the bear and receiving a ranger hat? That was one of the biggest thrills of her life — and a major privilege.
"We live in a beautiful plant, a fragile planet," she said. "We need to keep it beautiful."
Appreciating good writing
Very little was scripted in the early days of television and radio. Most of the material was off-the-cuff improv.
"I don't know what some comedy writers did before the f-word was invented."
"What amazes me is that when I began television, being on air was a brand new thing," she explained. "Today, audiences have heard every joke, seen many different scenarios — and that's a tough audience to surprise."
Like in The Golden Girls, if it wasn't on the page, an actor couldn't say it. Actors read just what the writers put down in paper, down to the punctuation.
"Comedy has rhythm just like music," she said. "Comedy is a funny business — and a sensitive business."
Talking sexy, not dirty
White is a fan of the double entendre and prefers to avoid using profanity. She often talks sexy, not dirty — and there's a difference.
"I don't know what some comedy writers did before the f-word was invented," she laughed.
White is a crossword puzzle fanatic. She enjoys sitting on a comfortable chair with a cool drink, alongside her Golden Retriever named Pontiac, and decipher the clues to fill in the blanks. She's not shy about telling her friends that "she's out of town" when she needs down time — though she feels guilty about doing that.
"I bit her. My parents weren't too happy with me."
Everyone's favorite grandmother figure?
"Oh, there's a bad side you haven't seen," she joked. "But you aren't going to see it either."
Though she quips that her life has been a "ditsy moment," alluding to her character in The Golden Girls, she's peeved by people not appreciating what they have.
"Growing up in Pasadena (Calif.), I loved animals — and I really liked boys," she told about her childhood.
When White witnessed her neighbor play too rough with a Boston Bulldog puppy, she did what any animal loving child would do.
"I bit her. My parents weren't too happy with me."