Even before “Saturday Night Live,” Betty White was among the prime reasons to stay home and watch TV on what Frank Sinatra famously crooned was the loneliest night of the week.
Nearly four decades ago, White joined the stellar cast of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” playing Sue Ann Nivens, TV’s first cougar – an unashamedly man-hungry, middle-aged career woman.
She was ahead of her time then – and is defying time at 88. White’s career is, well, white hot as she’s become an unlikely favorite of a younger generation of performers and fans, who have launched a Facebook campaign demanding she host “Saturday Night Live.”
Lorne Michaels, whose show smartly plays to the online crowd via its Digital Shorts and Hulu, might want to join the more than 172,000 fans in the Facebook group and give the people what they want.
“What a way to honor her, as well as entertain countless millions of people the world over who adore her as an actress, as a tireless animal rights advocate, and as a fantastic comedian!” the Facebook page declares.
On the surface, the White campaign might seem like a gimmick, just way to push an old lady out on the stage to make a few off-color quips and get a few cheap laughs.
But there’s nothing surface or cheap about Betty White. A lesser actress would have played her decidedly unhappy "Happy Homemaker" TV host character Sue Ann Nivens as a caricature of desperation. But between expertly delivered one-liners, White gave Sue Ann a sexiness mixed with an underlying sadness and a hint of longing.
Her seemingly dumb-as-the-St. Olaf-dirt widow Rose Nylund in “The Golden Girls” also could have been milked simply for laughs. But White imbued her naïve character with a sweet dignity and homespun, if offbeat, wisdom.
“The Golden Girls,” another Saturday night mainstay, left the air in 1992. But it feels as if we’re seeing as much of White as ever.
She’s become a cameo favorite in recent years, appearing in everything from “Family Guy” to “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.” She got the best notices in Sandra Bullock's recent romantic comedy “The Proposal.” White received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award last month, and rolled around in the mud in a Snickers Super Bowl commercial that proved one of the non-game highlights.
"I'm not going to be fit to live with the next few years," White joked backstage at the SAG ceremony.
A multi-generational audience feels a connection to White, whose pioneering career spans radio to the early days of TV to the digital age. Coming across as smart, funny and decent (she's won over some with her animal rights work) can still take you a long way, even after more than 70 years in show business.
Hopefully, White soon will be making her way back to Saturday night television – this time, live from New York.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.