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Published: 7/21/2010

For Betty White, the hits just keep on coming

NEW YORK TIMES

Betty White is old, Betty White is bold, but she sure isn't cold: As the title of her new television show suggests, she's “Hot in Cleveland” - and pretty much everywhere else.

The 88-year-old elder statesman of television comdey was recently nominated for an Emmy Award for her critically lauded work as a guest host on “Saturday Night Live,” and her new TV series, “Hot in Cleveland,” has been picked up for a second season.

The only problem she has is finding time for the movie offers that have flooded in since she lent her comic juice to one of last year's top grosing films, “The Proposal.”

The strangest thing, she says, is her popularity with fans too young to have experienced her previous career high point, the run of “The Golden Girls” (1985-1992), let alone her years as Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1973-1977).

“We're talking 12- and 15-year-olds who say, ‘Betty, you really rock,'” White says during a telephone interview. “I'll respond, ‘How do you even know me? You weren't even born when I was on my shows.'

“They'll say, ‘We love those “Mary Tyler Moore reruns. And we also watch “Golden Girls.”'”

So popular has White become in her later-than-golden years that she is reportedly being considered for the title role in an upcoming remake “Oh God” (1977).

“I can't get over what's going on with my life and my career,” she says. “At my age, I'm an old broad. All I can do is roll with the punches, enjoy it and be grateful for it.

“I get four or five hours a sleep a night,” White adds. “That's all the sleep I need. And I'm blessed with good energy, thanks to being blessed with good health.”

And, though it's been almost 30 years since the death of her husband, game-show host Allen Ludden, she gets plenty of companionship from her numerous cats.

“I'm actually sitting here with my kitties right now as I talk to you,” says White, a longtime animal activist who hosted the television show “The Pet Set” (1971) and is the author of “Betty White's Pet Love: How Pets Take Care of Us” (1983).

She takes care of people as Elka Ostrovsky in “Hot in Cleveland,” which airs on the TV Land cable channel on Wednesday nights.

“Three girls have come to Cleveland, played by Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick, and Jane Leeves,” she explains. “They rent a house, and I've been the housekeeper for 50 years. They inherit me along with the house — and, of course, I'm a pain in the neck.

“My character, Elka, is not a nice person,” White says. “When she sees the real-estate man talking to the three girls, she says, ‘Why are you renting to prostitutes?' That sort of sets the stage for the character. She's not easy.”

It's been years since White wasn't the oldest person on every set she's on, and she's gotten used to younger actresses asking for advice. Often she responds by borrowing a line from Bette Davis.

“Bette was once asked what advice she would give a young actress trying to get to Hollywood,” White says. “She said, ‘Take Fountain.' That doesn't mean anything to anybody outside of Los Angeles, but Fountain is the direct street that you should take that has the least amount of traffic on it.

“So, young actresses, take Fountain.”

White grew up in Oak Park, Ill., and made her screen debut in “Time to Kil”l (1945). Her first notable credit was the series “Life with Elizabeth” (1953-1955).

Most of her fans first encountered her as the raunchy Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

“Of course I loved Sue Ann,” White says. “She was so rotten. You can't get much more rotten than the neighborhood nymphomaniac.”

The actress went on to “The Betty White Show” (1977-1978) and “Mama's Family” (1983-1986) before scoring a rare second television hit when she created the role of Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls.”

Though she continued to make periodic appearances in films and on television after that show went off the air in 1992, most thought that White's glory days were behind her. Then came “The Proposal”, in which she played the loopy mother-in-law-to-be of Sandra Bullock's character, “Hot in Cleveland,” a hit TV commercial, and an unsolicited Internet campaign to land her a hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live”.

That last one threw White for a bit of a loop.

“I was asked a couple of times to host, years ago, and said, ‘Thank you, but no thank you,'” she recalls. “It's such a New York-focused show, and I'm a Californian. I was always afraid I'd feel like a fish out of water.

“But this time there was a campaign on Facebook from the fans, which really touched my heart,” she says. “And my agent also put a firm hand in the middle of my back and pushed. I decided to just make it fun and not ignore the fact that, at my age, it was amazing to be asked.”

White's career shows no signs of slowing down. She'll be seen later this year in the film “You Again,” and also will continue to make appearances on Craig Ferguson's show.

“He's just incredible,” she says. “He's a good friend, but on the air we can't ever dare make eye contact or we both crack up. I don't know why. We just tickle each other. I love him.”

Speaking of love, White never remarried after the 1981 death of Ludden, whom she married in 1963 after two brief marriages in the 1940s.

“Why marry again when you had the best?,” she says. “I had a marriage where we enjoyed our lives together every single day. We made each other laugh every single day.”

That doesn't mean that White doesn't have an active fantasy life, however.

“The hottest man in Hollywood remains Robert Redford,” she says. “I've never met the man, but I just enjoy fantasizing about him completely.”



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