Although she will be best remembered for playing the naive Rose Nylund in the hit comedy The Golden Girls (1985-92), Betty White, who has died aged 99, was for seven decades one of the best-loved performers on US television, a consummate professional who won eight Emmy awards, the first and last separated by more than 60 years. She was also a pioneer, in the 1950s one of the first women producing television, and, 30 years later, the first female game show host, dubbed a “femcee”.
All four lead actors on The Golden Girls won best actress Emmys, but White’s came first, in 1986. This may be because she played against type; Rose was the opposite of her role on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, as Sue Ann Nivens (1973-77), who hid her conniving nature beneath a sugary surface, while performing as the Happy Homemaker at the TV station where Mary worked.
From 1983 to 1986 White and Rue McClanahan played together in Mama’s Family, a spinoff from the Carol Burnett Show; when they left to join The Golden Girls, McClanahan, who had been the naive foil to Bea Arthur on Maude, was cast as Rose, with White set to play the man-chasing Blanche. The director Jay Sandrich suggested the two should swap parts, and the chemistry was immediately successful.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Betty moved with her parents, Horace White, an engineer, and Tess (nee Cachikis), to Los Angeles during the Depression, and graduated in 1939 from Beverly Hills high school; her colleagues in school theatre included the future film star Rhonda Fleming. She performed on an experimental Los Angeles television channel that year, but made her formal acting debut at the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre.
During the second world war she served in the Women’s Voluntary Services, making her movie debut in Time to Kill (1945), a short produced to inform servicemen about military educational programmes; the cast included Jackie Cooper, George Reeves (later TV’s first Superman), DeForest Kelley (later Bones on Star Trek) and Barry Nelson. She also was married, briefly, to Dick Barker, an Air Corps pilot.
After parts in radio shows such as Archie and the Great Gildersleeve, she got her own local programme, the first of four Betty White shows in which she would star. In 1947 she married the agent Lane Allen; they divorced in 1949. That year another local radio star, Al Jarvis, was presenting a variety show called Hollywood On Television, and hired White as his “girl Friday”, playing records and doing commercials and interviews. When Jarvis left the show in 1952, White took over as the host.
She also joined the writer George Tibbles and producer Don Fedderson in a production company, trying to create shows from the sketches in which she acted on her programme. Life With Elizabeth debuted in 1952, and, syndicated around the country, became an immediate hit, winning White her first Emmy.
As a co-producer, White followed Lucille Ball, but it could be argued she had more creative control over her product than Lucy did in Desilu. Life With Elizabeth ran until 1955; during 1954, White simultaneously presented her own variety show, her second Betty White show. She created another sitcom, Date With the Angels, in 1957; when her co-star Bill Williams left in 1958, it too became The Betty White Show before it was cancelled.
White turned to game shows and late-night talk, particularly as a frequent guest on Jack Paar’s show, a forerunner of The Tonight Show, and a regular on Password, with whose host, Allen Ludden, she had acted in summer stock. Ludden also hosted the GE College Bowl, from which University Challenge took its format. White and Ludden were married from 1963 until his death in 1981.
In 1962 she made her feature film debut, playing a senator in Advise and Consent, but although she turned in a solid performance, it would be 36 years before White returned to the big screen. In the meantime, her friendship with Password’s creator, Bob Stewart, and its producers, Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, kept her busy on their other shows, such as What’s My Line?, To Tell the Truth, and Password’s many successors. She remained in demand as a guest star, and in 1971 produced and hosted a syndicated show featuring interviews with celebrities and their pets, called The Pet Set.
Her career was reborn in 1973 when she debuted as Sue Ann in the Mary Tyler Moore Show’s third season, hired because she and Ludden were friendly with the show’s producer Grant Tinker, who saw that the script called for Sue Ann to be played by “an icky-sweet Betty White type”. She won Emmys as best supporting actress in 1975 and 1976.
When the show ended in 1977, she began her fourth Betty White show, a sitcom which co-starred John Hillerman, but lasted only one season. She acted in a number of TV movies before, in 1983 , becoming the first woman to host a game show with Just Men!, in which a panel of men helped women win cars. She picked up a daytime Emmy, her fourth overall.
She had a recurring role on The Love Boat before making her mark again in Mama’s Family, which led to The Golden Girls. With the show’s success White published her first memoir, Betty White In Person (1987). When Bea Arthur left The Golden Girls in 1992, the other three leads continued in The Golden Palace for two seasons. White showed no signs of slowing down, as indicated by the title of her second book, Here I Go Again: My Life In Television (1995). She took a part in the Marie Osmond series Maybe This Time (1995-96) and was busier than ever as a guest, winning her sixth Emmy as best guest-star on The John LaRoquette Show (1996).
In 1999 she began two seasons of playing mother to a single father (Alfred Molina) in Ladies Man. She appeared as Catherine Piper in David E Kelley’s series The Practice and its spin off, Boston Legal, and in 2006 made her soap opera debut on The Bold and the Beautiful, as the mother of the show’s matriarch. She proved so popular her role was extended for three seasons, until 2009. She began another TV sitcom, Hot in Cleveland, in 2010, at the age of 88, and it ran for five series.
Meanwhile she returned to the big screen in Dennis the Menace Strikes Again (1998). Among the films that followed, her best roles were in Lake Placid (1999) and The Proposal (2009).
In 2010, after a Facebook campaign, she became the oldest person to host Saturday Night Live, quipping that at her age she contacted old friends not with Facebook but with a ouija board. She won a Primetime Emmy for this appearance and in 2015 an Emmy lifetime achievement award.
Outside the entertainment industry, she was active in animal charities and the Los Angeles Zoo - Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo, was published in 2011. She told the Chicago Sun-Times that, as well as for her acting, “I also want to be remembered as a lady who helped the animals”.
• Betty Marion White, actor and producer, born 17 January 1922; died 31 December 2021
• This article was amended on 9 January 2022. Betty White married Allen Ludden in 1963 rather than 1961.