Betty White and Alan Alda Fall Desperately in Love

Alan: You are so skilled at creating this character that the world loves you for. You’re super sweet, and yet you’re saucy, and spicy saucy.
Betty: 03:33 I don’t think I’m spicy. I think that’s a lot of crap. I’m dirty old broad is what I am.
Alan: 00:00 This is so great. Betty, I’m so delighted that you are talking with me today. Thank you so much.
Betty: 00:06 Well, thank you for inviting. I tell you how I’ve been looking forward to sitting and talking with you.
Alan: 00:13 Well, so have I.
Betty: 00:15 I didn’t want, necessarily, these other people here, but that’s how it goes.
Alan: 00:22 Speaking of which, you have out in your office, sitting in the waiting room of your office, you have a picture of what looks to me like two of your favorite animals, Robert Redford and this bear.
Betty: 00:35 Yes. It’s not easy to choose between them.
Alan: 00:42 Which one have you got trained better than the other.
Betty: 00:47 That’s right. Then I’ve got my other favorite.
Alan: 00:50 You’re hugging … Is that a tiger?
Betty: 00:54 A lion.
Alan: 00:54 A lion.
Betty: 00:58 A lion. That’s my major.
Alan: 00:58 I wrote a movie once and directed it where I had my character wrestling with a tiger.
Betty: 01:04 Oh, I would like that.
Alan: 01:09 You would like that. I thought I would like it too.
Betty: 01:11 Didn’t you?
Alan: 01:12 Well, it’s interesting. After a while, the tiger just sat there and looked at me like, wait a minute, this is not getting my anywhere.
Betty: 01:22 Do I get a stunt check for this?
Alan: 01:25 Exactly, the tiger wanted something out of it. So then he started going for my weak spots. He started aiming at my ankles. She, it was a she. Then she reached around and bit me on the behind, and I thought, maybe this scene is over now.
Betty: 01:42 Maybe we’ve had enough tiger. Oh, that’s something.
Alan: 01:48 What I really love about your career is how you are so skilled at creating this character that the world loves you for. You’re super sweet, and yet you’re saucy, and spicy saucy.
Betty: 02:08 I’m dirty old broad is what I am.
Betty: 03:33 I don’t think I’m spicy. I think that’s a lot of crap.
Betty: 02:08 I’m dirty old broad is what I am.
Alan: 02:15 Did you create that character from the beginning? Is that you? Is that down in your heart that you’ve got all these parts to you?
Betty: 02:22 I think my friend can answer that better. I don’t believe in trying to be somebody you’re not. I think you miss the boat if you try to do something on purpose.
Alan: 02:44 One of my daughters has a sign in her house that says don’t try to be somebody else. Everybody else is already taken.
Betty: 02:56 Oh, I like that. Oh, that’s perfect.
Alan: 02:58 That sounds like you. I’ve looked at some clips in the last few days of you, I think, building that character publicly of the super sweet, super spicy underneath lady. When you did that show where it was pretty much just you talking to the camera five hours a day. You were so engaging as a sweet person, but I didn’t see signs of the spicy coming out yet.
Betty: 03:33 I don’t think I’m spicy. I think that’s a lot of crap.
Alan: 03:44 You’ve got it down so great. I love it, I love it. I saw the spice coming out in public in an interview you did with Merv Griffin in 1960. You surely don’t remember the line you did about fur coats. It was hilarious because it came as such a surprise, because the country knew you as this lovely, adorable person who was concerned about other people. I saw one episode where you said, “I’ve talked enough about me now. Let’s talk about you. How are you feeling? Are you okay?” I was really convinced you were concerned about me. Then it turned out it was a Geritol commercial. Do they still make Geritol? Do you know?
Betty: 04:31 I don’t know.
Alan: 04:32 Did you ever drink any?
Betty: 04:34 No, no. Can you just picture coming in about 6:00 and mixing a Geritol on the rocks? I don’t think I’d like that.
Alan: 04:50 It probably made you feel better because it had a little alcohol in it.
Betty: 04:53 Yes. Maybe I could get rid of the Geritol and just drink the alcohol.
Alan: 04:58 That sounds like a good plan. So you were with Merv Griffin, and in just that same sweet voice, you said, “I just found out” … You said, “I’ve bought two fur coats with my own money before I realized there’s another way to get them.”
Alan: 10:08 You’re always looking for that turn that sends it into an unexpected gag. I love that. I love the skill you have. Where did you get it? Neither of your parents was in show business, right?
Alan: What did your parents do for a living?
Betty: 33:28 My dad owned an electric floodlight company.
Alan: 33:36 A floodlight company?
Betty: 33:38 I mean, where he put floodlights on buildings.
Alan: 33:45 Your mom, did she have work, a profession I mean?
Betty: 33:50 She did when they were first married, before I came along, but then she was my mom.
Alan: 33:57 What did she do before that?
Betty: 33:58 She just worked in an office. I was blessed with the two best parents that ever lived.
Alan: 34:09 What was it about their parenting that stuck with you?
Betty: 34:14 We just had fun together. We’d go on vacations. We were big nature lovers, big animal nuts. We’d packing in the High Sierras, and it was a two day pack trip, pack all our food and stuff on mules, and then go two-day pack trip. Then the guide would take, unload us, pitch our tent, and leave, and he wouldn’t come back for three weeks. So we never saw another human being, and that’s what I loved.
Alan: 34:50 How old were you then during that trip?
Betty: 34:52 Oh, we would do that every year. The first time was probably … The first time I road on the saddle in front of my dad. I was too little to ride my own horse, but that next year I was able to ride Queeny, my own horse. Then we’d stay in there. One time we ran out of food. We thought we had packed enough, but we hadn’t. So dad had to go out, a two-day pack trip on horseback, and he had to walk out. So he left mom and me in there, and then he walked out to get new supplies and brought them in with more horses and stuff. Mom and I were fine with being alone in there, except somehow without dad it was a little scary at night, because you just didn’t know. But we were both such animal nuts that, if it was just animals out there, that’s fine. But if there are people out there-
Betty: 05:27 For somebody who doesn’t wear fur, that’s even funnier.
Alan: 05:32 I know. I was thinking when I saw that … That was 1960. You wouldn’t do that joke now. You wouldn’t even wear fur now.
Betty: 05:40 No, I haven’t worn fur in a long time.
MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 05:45 This ability you have to communicate with animals sounds extraordinary. The picture of the bear in your waiting room in the office is so interesting, because I’ve seen another shot of you hugging the bear, right next to the bear hugging the bear. Yeah, like that. The bear’s head is almost larger than your entire body, and you do this thing with a marshmallow with the bear. Tell me what you do.
Betty: 06:18 I put the marshmallow in my mouth, and the bear takes it out between my lips and takes it out. I can’t explain it, Alan. They just read you like a book, and they know. They spot fear. If they sense fear, then you have to be very careful. But if they sense there’s no fear, then they just sit back like you and I are doing, and we just have a little go at it.
Alan: 06:56 Did you develop a way to deal with animals, or do you think you always had it?
Betty: 07:01 Oh, I think in the womb. I think my folks loved animals, deeply. But they’re just kind of my life.
Alan: 07:16 Somebody told me that you were at a zoo. They said don’t be offended. This animal never comes out. I think it was a giraffe.
Betty: 07:28 Oh, it was at Columbus Zoo, a big huge territory for this giraffe. He was in the farthest corner, way, way, way back there. They said, no, he won’t come over. Even for food he won’t come over. Don’t do that. Well, I can’t help it. I have to talk to the animals. So I said, come on, come on, sweetie. Come on over. He just looked. Come on. He came from that corner all the way across and put his head over the fence and let me pet his head. I was just mind-boggled. I wanted to get back in there with him. Can I stay with you for a while?
Alan: 08:31 What do you suppose it is? How do you do it?
Betty: 08:36 I think they sense a lack of fear, I think is the primary thing. But, also, tremendous love, tremendous. I love animals more than most of the fellows I’ve ever known, with the exception of a couple, but that’s another story.
Alan: 39:09 You’re a good relater to people as well. Have you learned anything about relating to animals that you apply to relating to people do you think?
Betty: 39:23 I may do it without realizing it, that if you meet somebody for the first time … Like the whole time we’ve been sitting here, this nice engineer, I’ve been hitting on him while I’m talking to you.
Alan: 39:44 That same basic joke, no matter how many times you do it, you get me with it, because I don’t see it coming.

MUSIC BRIDGE
Do you remember how it came about that you got your first acting job?
Betty: 46:23 [inaudible 00:46:23] high school. In grammar school, I got the lead in the school play.
Alan: 46:29 Do you remember what the play was?
Betty: 46:32 No, it was an original.
Alan: 46:33 An original.
Betty: 46:35 Then I got the lead in the high school play.
Alan: 46:44 So you knew you liked to perform from that experience.
Betty: 46:47 I loved it. I loved it, yeah.
Alan: 46:50 What about your first paid job? What was that?
Betty: 46:55 My first paid job. Oh, I should be able to answer this right off the top of my head.
Alan: 47:02 Usually we all remember that. What about the early days did you start … I mean, did you start as a weather broadcaster or a sidekick? What was the first few years of being on the air?
Betty: 47:20 On the air, I would be … Al Jarvis was a star on the … And I was sort of his buffer.
Alan: 47:39 The second banana.
Betty: 47:40 Yeah.
Alan: 47:43 So you began in broadcasting. Did you act on the stage first?
Betty: 47:50 No, no.
Alan: 47:51 So right away from the beginning broadcasting.
Betty: 47:53 Broadcasting. Well, if you don’t count school plays. School plays were on stage.
Alan: 48:02 Even that, I think, gives you a basic understanding of the relationship between you and the audience.
Betty: 48:10 And what you get back from the audience, not just what they think of you, but what they give back. Without that reciprocal thing, it’s hard to overcome fear and anxiety and all that, unless you get that back from the audience.
Alan: 48:36 What about when they’re not actually there? They’re on the other end of the camera, but you can’t see them or hear them or sense what they’re going through. Do you nevertheless have a sense of their being there in some way?
Betty: 48:52 Oh, yes. Oh, my goodness, yes. Oh, because even if you’re not there and you can’t see them, you’re still talking to them. That camera, that lens is people as far as I’m concerned. When I’m talking to that lens, I’m not talking to a camera lens, I’m talking to people.
Alan: 49:20 You sense something about what’s happening to them as you talk to them. Can you describe that experience? Because a lot of people know that, when you talk to a camera, you really are talking to people, but they’re not able to follow through and actually believe that they’re talking to people and not be as personal and relaxed as they would be if they were really talking to people. Is there something that goes through your head that says remember there’s somebody there? Do you just automatically know you’re talking to them?
Betty: 49:57 I just automatically know that that camera lens is not a … You ignore the fact that it’s a camera lens. When you’re talking to it, you know that, out there, there’s a whole bunch of people that are listening to you.
Alan: 16:56 You seem so good at relating to people. I remember when I watched that clip of you in the 50s just talking to the camera. You were talking to the country as if it was one person, and you related to me through time and space 50 years later. I thought you were talking to me personally. Every actor has to have this ability to relate, and I was thinking of you and Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live in that wonderful sketch where she’s a census taker. You answer the door, and you’re this sweet lady who gives her the worst possible answers. But I remember you talking about that as a difficult thing, because you had to read cue cards over her shoulder and weren’t able to look her in the eye.
Betty: 17:47 I can’t. I really hate that.
Alan: 17:52 I hate it too.
Betty: 17:54 Cue cards … But she was using cue cards, and I can’t very well say, oh, I don’t want cue cards if she’s using them. So I memorized it, but when the cue cards are up there-
Alan: 18:12 You can’t ignore them.
Betty: 18:13 … you can’t ignore them. You just can’t. So it was not fun.
Alan: 18:20 But it’s interesting. Even though you didn’t want to use them, you were so skilled at it that, when I saw that sketch, there was no way that I didn’t believe you were looking her in the eye, which is very tough because you really get something from the other actor that you can’t get any other way than-
Betty: 18:39 That’s right.
Alan: 18:40 … looking them in the eye, right?
Betty: 18:41 That’s right. I’m waiting for you to give me something any minute now.
Alan: 18:48 I’ll come up with something in a second. You slip them in so fast sometimes I don’t know you’re actually doing a great joke.

MIDROLL
This is C+V and now…
Alan: 09:05 You’ve not only loved animals. You’ve actually funded studies to improve their health. Am I right?
Betty: 09:15 Well, I work to make money for the animals [inaudible 00:09:24]. But if we find there’s a study going on, we do the best we can to [crosstalk 00:09:32]
Alan: 09:31 What about cat leukemia? I didn’t even know about that until recently.
Betty: 09:37 Yeah. The research needs funding, and that’s where I can come in.
Alan: 09:46 So you actually helped deal with cat leukemia when most of us don’t even know that there’s a problem.
Betty: 09:53 Well, I don’t necessarily help, but I give what I can.
Alan: 09:59 Oh, that’s so great.
Betty: 10:01 And money too.
Alan: 10:08 You’re always looking for that turn that sends it into an unexpected gag. I love that. I love the skill you have. Where did you get it? Neither of your parents was in show business, right?
Betty: 10:24 No. They were so great, and we had fun together. They had great senses of humor. So we really had a great time, because we would see something, and we’d all get it without talking about it or saying did you see this or that. Then the jokes would start.
Alan: 10:55 It really is … It’s the grease. Humor is the grease that keeps a relationship going in a way like nothing else can, I think.
Betty: 11:04 It’s fun.
Alan: 11:09 It is fun. It makes life fun. Does everybody ask you now about what’s the secret of longevity? Are you sick of hearing questions like that?
Betty: 11:20 No, I’m thrilled at hearing questions. I just turned 98.
Alan: 11:27 I know. Happy birthday. It was just a couple of days ago.
Betty: 11:29 Thank you, and, boy, did I milk that birthday.
Alan: 11:34 How did you do that?
Betty: 11:35 Oh, I mean, I never have had a birthday like that. It was the best one in 98 years, but it’s good health. The fact that I’m 98 but I’m well and I’m not doddering around.
Alan: 12:02 You sure aren’t. You’re sharp as a tack.
Betty: 12:04 Well, I didn’t go that far.
Alan: 12:12 So people must ask you constantly what your regimen is. You’re on some kind of special diet that helps you with good nutrition.
Betty: 12:22 Yeah, hot dogs and potato chips and that kind of stuff. I don’t have a special diet, I must admit, and I stay up late. I get up early.
Alan: 12:38 You don’t get much sleep, huh?
Betty: 12:41 Sleep?
Alan: 12:43 It’s supposed to be very important.
Betty: 12:46 It’s supposed to be very important, but staying up is a lot more fun.
Alan: 12:49 It depends what you’re staying up doing, I guess. I remember reading or hearing you say once that your mother gave you really good advice about looking for the positive side of things. It sounds like you have lived by that.
Betty: 13:12 Dad was pretty much that way too, but mom was the cockeyed optimist. She said, “If you look for the negative, I mean, it’s all over the place. You’ll find it in a second.” But she said, “If you just try to find something positive to look at” … But she said, “Don’t be a pain in the ass doing it, because people get … They get fed up with that very quickly.”
Alan: 13:43 I know, somebody gets the news that they’re sick and they’re going to die in six months. It’s not a good idea to look for the positive in that. Well, you’ve got six months.
Betty: 13:53 You’ve got six months, and you’ve got the schedule, so you can make a plan.
Alan: 14:03 So your mother really had a rounded idea there, that you can find something positive in almost everything, but you don’t have to impose it on other people.
Betty: 14:16 That’s right. You can always find something negative, always. I had a very good friend. You know her too, but she just could not be positive. She had to find … You’d say good morning. “What’s good about it?” I’d say, “But that’s not the way to start it, because then you’re miserable.” “I’m not miserable.” I would try not to get mad, but I’d think, oh, come off it, come off it.
Alan: 15:05 Sorry. Graham will cut this out, unless I have a really good spout of throat clearing. Good, thank you for joining me.
Betty: 15:18 We’re speaking another language, and it’s none of your business.
Alan: 15:25 What the hell were we just talking about? She put it right out of my head. I don’t know. It’ll come back to me.
Betty: 15:32 My mother.
Alan: 15:33 Your mother, positive. Oh, I know. Now you said you sometimes felt angry with your friend who wasn’t seeing the positive and refusing to see the positive side. A lot of people think that people who are America’s sweetheart, as you have been for so many years, don’t get angry. They thought that Mr. Rogers would never get angry, but everybody gets angry, right?
Betty: 16:02 Oh, yes.
Alan: 16:04 How do you handle your anger? What do you do? If you get pissed at somebody who’s saying something you know is wrong or hurtful, how do you correct them?
Betty: 16:17 I don’t correct them. I just kind of leave the situation, then go into some room by myself and cuss it out. It doesn’t do any good to tell them they’re wrong, because they don’t want to hear that, and you’re not going to make any mileage telling them that. So I just try to get out of the situation. But then I have to go and let off steam somewhere.
Alan: 16:51 So you actually do let off steam. That’s interesting.
Betty: 16:53 Yes, oh, yes.
MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 25:01 You accomplished an awful lot early on. I read that you were the first woman to own a television show. Sorry, I read that you were the first woman to own your own television series, and used that position to … I think you made sure you had a woman director on the show, which was unusual. Am I right about that?
Betty: 25:27 I just happened to have a woman. It wasn’t I want a woman director. Gender has never been my most interesting subject. I just happened to have a great gal director.
Alan: 25:46 Did you have to sell the idea to the network?
Betty: 25:49 No.
Alan: 25:50 You just said that’s who I want?
Betty: 25:52 Yeah. She would come in when we were putting the show together, and she was there doing it. Pretty soon she just became a fixture, and so it was great. I always kind of tried to let the people running the show run the show. If I start trying to run the show … And stop me if I’m wrong, but if I try to run the show, I’m not going to do a very good job of it. It’s their job to run the show. It’s my job to do what they want. Besides, it makes it a lot easier to avoid a lot of heavy decisions.
Alan: 26:56 People ask me this, and I can’t answer it, because as you do, I take life as it comes along, and I try to make the most of it. People ask me, what’s your favorite character, or what’s your favorite movie or your favorite show? I have no answer for that. Do you?
Betty: 27:13 I don’t either. I mean, I love some more than others, but I don’t have one that, oh, well, nothing will ever be like that, because … And it’s a solid memory that you have it there, and you can turn it on and off like a switch. But then something new comes along that seems to beat it.
Alan: 27:44 I remember rather than whole shows or characters I played … I wonder how you feel about this. I remember moments, a moment where something happened often that was unexpected or where I got somewhere, I achieved something I hadn’t been able to do before, and that sticks in my mind. Other people wouldn’t even pay any attention to it. Are there moments that crop up in your head?
Betty: 28:11 Not right now without [inaudible 00:28:14]. But I know the kinds of moments you’re talking about.
Alan: 28:19 Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to pick one out right now either.
Betty: 28:21 But to think, my God, I did that. How did I … I didn’t know I could do that?
Alan: 28:29 I know. That’s one of the wonderful things about being in our profession is that you find your … You have a task to perform. You’re not sure you can do it. You’re ready to try.
Betty: 28:42 You hope for the best.
Alan: 28:44 Then you find out you can do it, what a treat that is.
Betty: 28:49 There’s no business like it, really, is there? Aren’t we in the best business in the world?
Alan: 28:56 It’s the best one I’ve ever been in, but it’s also the only one I’ve ever been in.
Betty: 29:02 Well, maybe that’s the same way with me. But I just find that there’s nothing like being able to reach out to the people out there and have them understand what you mean and respond to that.
Alan: 29:24 That’s a very special experience, and not everybody has that experience, because it’s a very personal thing.
Betty: 29:31 Very.
Alan: 29:32 We’re using our own voice, our own body, our own memories, all our emotions. We make something out of that that other people respond to. To get that response back is an extraordinary feeling.
Betty: 29:45 Oh, or when you work in front of a live audience, for example, and you’re out on stage. You walk out, and they give you a big greeting, which they do out of politeness. They greet you that way. Then you’re standing there in front of all these people that you don’t know, and it’s scary, but it’s wonderful. It’s really exciting.
Alan: 30:22 Did your heart beat extra fast in the beginning? Were you scared to face an audience in the beginning? Did you learn to do it better? Or were you always comfortable?
Betty: 30:33 I still get stage fright.
Alan: 30:35 You do, really?
Betty: 30:36 Oh, God, to the point of no return.
Alan: 30:40 Your heart beats faster. Does something happen to your voice?
Betty: 30:44 Yes. Hello, everybody. I’m so happy to be here.
Alan: 30:55 Get me out of here.
Betty: 30:56 I want to go home.
Alan: 31:02 I can’t believe it that after all these years you don’t have a sense of comfort walking out and facing the audience.
Betty: 31:10 Excitement and love. I love doing it, but I’m scared to death, Alan.
Alan: 31:18 That’s so interesting. That’s so interesting. Do you remember that feeling before you go on, before the show starts and the audience is talking among themselves, and you hear the roar of that crowd that’s apparently not interested in you? They’re interested in one another. That can be a daunting experience.
Betty: 31:43 Just the audience itself is a daunting experience.
Alan: 31:49 Kids in high school like to peak out through the curtain at the audience before the show, and that’s the best way to fall apart. Oh, my God. There was a guy in Vaudeville I saw when I was about 10 years old. He used to come out on stage very confidently and walked to the footlights and look at the audience and say, “Oh, my God, people!” Then he fell over backwards like a telephone pole.
Betty: 32:16 Boom!
Alan: 32:16 Yeah. I think that was his whole act.
Betty: 32:20 But it worked.
Alan: 32:21 I can’t remember anything he did after that. That was pretty funny.
Betty: 32:28 How about you? What got you into this?
Alan: 32:31 Well, my father was an actor. You might have known him, Robert Alda.
Betty: 32:34 Oh, yes.
Alan: 32:36 And very handsome, leading man, sang beautifully. He started out in burlesque. He was a singer and a straight man. I used to … From the time I was two years old, I’d stand in the wings watching burlesque, which gave me a lifelong interest-
Betty: 32:58 Of course.
Alan: 33:00 … also in show business and acting.

Alan: 16:56 You seem so good at relating to people. I remember when I watched that clip of you in the 50s just talking to the camera. You were talking to the country as if it was one person, and you related to me through time and space 50 years later. I thought you were talking to me personally. Every actor has to have this ability to relate, and I was thinking of you and Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live in that wonderful sketch where she’s a census taker. You answer the door, and you’re this sweet lady who gives her the worst possible answers. But I remember you talking about that as a difficult thing, because you had to read cue cards over her shoulder and weren’t able to look her in the eye.
Betty: 17:47 I can’t. I really hate that.
Alan: 17:52 I hate it too.
Betty: 17:54 Cue cards … But she was using cue cards, and I can’t very well say, oh, I don’t want cue cards if she’s using them. So I memorized it, but when the cue cards are up there-
Alan: 18:12 You can’t ignore them.
Betty: 18:13 … you can’t ignore them. You just can’t. So it was not fun.
Alan: 18:20 But it’s interesting. Even though you didn’t want to use them, you were so skilled at it that, when I saw that sketch, there was no way that I didn’t believe you were looking her in the eye, which is very tough because you really get something from the other actor that you can’t get any other way than-
Betty: 18:39 That’s right.
Alan: 18:40 … looking them in the eye, right?
Betty: 18:41 That’s right. I’m waiting for you to give me something any minute now.
Alan: 18:48 I’ll come up with something in a second. You slip them in so fast sometimes I don’t know you’re actually doing a great joke. I’ve seen you interviewed by people who were themselves renowned comedians. They would talk over your jokes because you came in with them so straight they didn’t realize that you were being hilarious. No, you’re just amazingly skilled. Did you develop that consciously, or did it just emerge from your experience with your parents?
Betty: 19:24 Well, I think it’s not something you do on … I don’t think comedy is something you do on purpose. I mean, if it’s your business, of course. But if you think, I’m going to do some jokes and I’m going to be pretty funny now, it’s … [inaudible 00:19:51] but taste the soup … The old man is in a restaurant … You don’t need me [crosstalk 00:20:13]
Alan: 20:13 Which soup, the one with the soup with the spoon?
Betty: 20:21 He says, “Taste the soup,” and it’s like, “I don’t want to taste the soup. Thank you.” “If the waiter says is there something wrong, I’ll get you something else. What’s wrong with the soup?” “No, just taste the soup.” Finally, it goes on long enough where the guys knows he might as well taste the soup just to end the conversation. He says, “Okay, I’ll taste the soup. Where’s the spoon?” A-ha!
Alan: 20:56 So that’s how humor emerges on its own, without deliberation. But, I guess, you’re saying that, if you have a sense of humor, you find what’s funny, but it’s hard to do it deliberately. It’s hard to go after it.
Betty: 21:15 Well, if you go after it too hard, then it gets self-conscious, but it’s fun to play with somebody back and forth. That’s fun.
Alan: 21:31 I agree. That’s, to me, one of the great pleasures of being an actor is having that intimate relationship with somebody who otherwise is a stranger to you.
Betty: 21:41 That’s right. It’s amazing how you relate on a whole different level than normal people relate with each other.
Alan: 21:51 That’s right. You sense things from the other person’s body language, tone of voice, even more than you do in real life.
Betty: 22:02 I do that with Robert Redford, but, no, no, I don’t do that with Robert Redford.
Alan: 22:09 Oh, well, that’s another day. We’ll have another interview. I assume you know Bob Redford.
Betty: 22:21 I’ve never met him. [crosstalk 00:22:23]
Alan: 22:23 Oh, my God, so it’s just and that cardboard sign out in the office.
Betty: 22:27 If I ever met him or ran into him, I would be so embarrassed because I’ve taken his name for years. I take his name in vain. People could think that we’re deeply intimate. I just talk about him. It’s wishful thinking, sure.
Alan: 22:54 Robert Redford you’ve never met, but you do the marshmallow thing with the bear.
Betty: 22:58 Uh-huh.
Alan: 23:00 That blows my mind.
Betty: 23:04 Well, I think of the two I kind of like the bear.

Alan: 46:13 So mute yourselves up again. Do you remember how it came about that you got your first acting job?
Betty: 46:23 [inaudible 00:46:23] high school. In grammar school, I got the lead in the school play.
Alan: 46:29 Do you remember what the play was?
Betty: 46:32 No, it was an original.
Alan: 46:33 An original.
Betty: 46:35 Then I got the lead in the high school play.
Alan: 46:44 So you knew you liked to perform from that experience.
Betty: 46:47 I loved it. I loved it, yeah.
Alan: 46:50 What about your first paid job? What was that?
Betty: 46:55 My first paid job. Oh, I should be able to answer this right off the top of my head.
Alan: 47:02 Usually we all remember that. What about the early days did you start … I mean, did you start as a weather broadcaster or a sidekick? What was the first few years of being on the air?
Betty: 47:20 On the air, I would be … Al Jarvis was a star on the … And I was sort of his buffer.
Alan: 47:39 The second banana.
Betty: 47:40 Yeah.
Alan: 47:43 So you began in broadcasting. Did you act on the stage first?
Betty: 47:50 No, no.
Alan: 47:51 So right away from the beginning broadcasting.
Betty: 47:53 Broadcasting. Well, if you don’t count school plays. School plays were on stage.
Alan: 48:02 Even that, I think, gives you a basic understanding of the relationship between you and the audience.
Betty: 48:10 And what you get back from the audience, not just what they think of you, but what they give back. Without that reciprocal thing, it’s hard to overcome fear and anxiety and all that, unless you get that back from the audience.
Alan: 48:36 What about when they’re not actually there? They’re on the other end of the camera, but you can’t see them or hear them or sense what they’re going through. Do you nevertheless have a sense of their being there in some way?
Betty: 48:52 Oh, yes. Oh, my goodness, yes. Oh, because even if you’re not there and you can’t see them, you’re still talking to them. That camera, that lens is people as far as I’m concerned. When I’m talking to that lens, I’m not talking to a camera lens, I’m talking to people.
Alan: 49:20 You sense something about what’s happening to them as you talk to them. Can you describe that experience? Because a lot of people know that, when you talk to a camera, you really are talking to people, but they’re not able to follow through and actually believe that they’re talking to people and not be as personal and relaxed as they would be if they were really talking to people. Is there something that goes through your head that says remember there’s somebody there? Do you just automatically know you’re talking to them?
Betty: 49:57 I just automatically know that that camera lens is not a … You ignore the fact that it’s a camera lens. When you’re talking to it, you know that, out there, there’s a whole bunch of people that are listening to you.
MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 23:17 Do you plan ahead? Have you ever planned ahead? Have you ever had a plan for your career or your life?
Betty: 23:24 Not really. You take what comes along, and it’s so wonderful, at this age, at 98, to have things still coming along. But I can’t plan them, because it could stop tomorrow. People would say, she’s 98 years old. We don’t want her.
Alan: 23:51 I get the impression you’ve been an improviser all your life. I mean, even back in the days when you were handling a TV show by yourself five hours a day, six days a week, you had to be an improviser. It couldn’t all be planned. It sounds like that’s how you handle your life as well.
Betty: But it’s fun to play with somebody back and forth. That’s fun.
Alan: 21:31 I agree. That’s, to me, one of the great pleasures of being an actor is having that intimate relationship with somebody who otherwise is a stranger to you.
Betty: 21:41 That’s right. It’s amazing how you relate on a whole different level than normal people relate with each other.
Alan: 21:51 That’s right. You sense things from the other person’s body language, tone of voice, even more than you do in real life.
Betty: 22:02 I do that with Robert Redford, but, no, no, I don’t do that with Robert Redford.
Alan: 22:09 Oh, well, that’s another day. We’ll have another interview. I assume you know Bob Redford.
Betty: 22:21 I’ve never met him. [crosstalk 00:22:23]
Alan: 22:23 Oh, my God, so it’s just and that cardboard sign out in the office.
Betty: 22:27 If I ever met him or ran into him, I would be so embarrassed because I’ve taken his name for years. I take his name in vain. People could think that we’re deeply intimate. I just talk about him. It’s wishful thinking, sure.
Alan: 22:54 Robert Redford you’ve never met, but you do the marshmallow thing with the bear.
Betty: 22:58 Uh-huh.
Alan: 23:00 That blows my mind.
Betty: 23:04 Well, I think of the two I kind of like the bear.

Betty: 24:15 I guess so. It’s just you can look … Oh, it sounds like a cockeyed optimist. I don’t mean it that way. But you can look at the downside of anything, and a lot of people live with that downside. But it’s kind of fun when you look at the upside and you try to get the most out of everything that you can instead of complaining about it.

Alan: 25:01 You accomplished an awful lot early on. I read that you were the first woman to own a television show. Sorry, I read that you were the first woman to own your own television series, and used that position to … I think you made sure you had a woman director on the show, which was unusual. Am I right about that?
Betty: 25:27 I just happened to have a woman. It wasn’t I want a woman director. Gender has never been my most interesting subject. I just happened to have a great gal director.
Alan: 25:46 Did you have to sell the idea to the network?
Betty: 25:49 No.
Alan: 25:50 You just said that’s who I want?
Betty: 25:52 Yeah. She would come in when we were putting the show together, and she was there doing it. Pretty soon she just became a fixture, and so it was great. I always kind of tried to let the people running the show run the show. If I start trying to run the show … And stop me if I’m wrong, but if I try to run the show, I’m not going to do a very good job of it. It’s their job to run the show. It’s my job to do what they want. Besides, it makes it a lot easier to avoid a lot of heavy decisions.
Alan: 26:56 People ask me this, and I can’t answer it, because as you do, I take life as it comes along, and I try to make the most of it. People ask me, what’s your favorite character, or what’s your favorite movie or your favorite show? I have no answer for that. Do you?
Betty: 27:13 I don’t either. I mean, I love some more than others, but I don’t have one that, oh, well, nothing will ever be like that, because … And it’s a solid memory that you have it there, and you can turn it on and off like a switch. But then something new comes along that seems to beat it.
Alan: 27:44 I remember rather than whole shows or characters I played … I wonder how you feel about this. I remember moments, a moment where something happened often that was unexpected or where I got somewhere, I achieved something I hadn’t been able to do before, and that sticks in my mind. Other people wouldn’t even pay any attention to it. Are there moments that crop up in your head?
Betty: 28:11 Not right now without [inaudible 00:28:14]. But I know the kinds of moments you’re talking about.
Alan: 28:19 Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to pick one out right now either.
Betty: 28:21 But to think, my God, I did that. How did I … I didn’t know I could do that?
Alan: 28:29 I know. That’s one of the wonderful things about being in our profession is that you find your … You have a task to perform. You’re not sure you can do it. You’re ready to try.
Betty: 28:42 You hope for the best.
Alan: 28:44 Then you find out you can do it, what a treat that is.
Betty: 28:49 There’s no business like it, really, is there? Aren’t we in the best business in the world?
Alan: 28:56 It’s the best one I’ve ever been in, but it’s also the only one I’ve ever been in.
Betty: 29:02 Well, maybe that’s the same way with me. But I just find that there’s nothing like being able to reach out to the people out there and have them understand what you mean and respond to that.
Alan: 29:24 That’s a very special experience, and not everybody has that experience, because it’s a very personal thing.
Betty: 29:31 Very.
Alan: 29:32 We’re using our own voice, our own body, our own memories, all our emotions. We make something out of that that other people respond to. To get that response back is an extraordinary feeling.
Betty: 29:45 Oh, or when you work in front of a live audience, for example, and you’re out on stage. You walk out, and they give you a big greeting, which they do out of politeness. They greet you that way. Then you’re standing there in front of all these people that you don’t know, and it’s scary, but it’s wonderful. It’s really exciting.
Alan: 30:22 Did your heart beat extra fast in the beginning? Were you scared to face an audience in the beginning? Did you learn to do it better? Or were you always comfortable?
Betty: 30:33 I still get stage fright.
Alan: 30:35 You do, really?
Betty: 30:36 Oh, God, to the point of no return.
Alan: 30:40 Your heart beats faster. Does something happen to your voice?
Betty: 30:44 Yes. Hello, everybody. I’m so happy to be here.
Alan: 30:55 Get me out of here.
Betty: 30:56 I want to go home.
Alan: 31:02 I can’t believe it that after all these years you don’t have a sense of comfort walking out and facing the audience.
Betty: 31:10 Excitement and love. I love doing it, but I’m scared to death, Alan.
Alan: 31:18 That’s so interesting. That’s so interesting. Do you remember that feeling before you go on, before the show starts and the audience is talking among themselves, and you hear the roar of that crowd that’s apparently not interested in you? They’re interested in one another. That can be a daunting experience.
Betty: 31:43 Just the audience itself is a daunting experience.
Alan: 31:49 Kids in high school like to peak out through the curtain at the audience before the show, and that’s the best way to fall apart. Oh, my God. There was a guy in Vaudeville I saw when I was about 10 years old. He used to come out on stage very confidently and walked to the footlights and look at the audience and say, “Oh, my God, people!” Then he fell over backwards like a telephone pole.
Betty: 32:16 Boom!
Alan: 32:16 Yeah. I think that was his whole act.
Betty: 32:20 But it worked.
Alan: 32:21 I can’t remember anything he did after that. That was pretty funny.
Betty: 32:28 How about you? What got you into this?
Alan: 32:31 Well, my father was an actor. You might have known him, Robert Alda.
Betty: 32:34 Oh, yes.
Alan: 32:36 And very handsome, leading man, sang beautifully. He started out in burlesque. He was a singer and a straight man. I used to … From the time I was two years old, I’d stand in the wings watching burlesque, which gave me a lifelong interest-
Betty: 32:58 Of course.
Alan: 33:00 … also in show business and acting.

MUSIC BRIDGE
Betty: 33:03 And you’ve got to do it.
Alan: 33:06 So I grew up that way. That’s why I asked you about your parents, because I only knew show business from the time I was a boy, a baby. All our friends were comics and strippers and chorus girls. That’s the only world I knew. But what did your parents do for a living?
Betty: 33:28 My dad owned an electric floodlight company.
Alan: 33:36 A floodlight company?
Betty: 33:38 I mean, where he put floodlights on buildings.
Alan: 33:45 Your mom, did she have work, a profession I mean?
Betty: 33:50 She did when they were first married, before I came along, but then she was my mom.
Alan: 33:57 What did she do before that?
Betty: 33:58 She just worked in an office. I was blessed with the two best parents that ever lived.
Alan: 34:09 What was it about their parenting that stuck with you?
Betty: 34:14 We just had fun together. We’d go on vacations. We were big nature lovers, big animal nuts. We’d packing in the High Sierras, and it was a two day pack trip, pack all our food and stuff on mules, and then go two-day pack trip. Then the guide would take, unload us, pitch our tent, and leave, and he wouldn’t come back for three weeks. So we never saw another human being, and that’s what I loved.
Alan: 34:50 How old were you then during that trip?
Betty: 34:52 Oh, we would do that every year. The first time was probably … The first time I road on the saddle in front of my dad. I was too little to ride my own horse, but that next year I was able to ride Queeny, my own horse. Then we’d stay in there. One time we ran out of food. We thought we had packed enough, but we hadn’t. So dad had to go out, a two-day pack trip on horseback, and he had to walk out. So he left mom and me in there, and then he walked out to get new supplies and brought them in with more horses and stuff. Mom and I were fine with being alone in there, except somehow without dad it was a little scary at night, because you just didn’t know. But we were both such animal nuts that, if it was just animals out there, that’s fine. But if there are people out there-
Alan: 36:21 Wait a minute. I mean, other animals … We kill one another, but other animals like to eat other species. To many mountain lions, we’re another species.
Betty: 36:35 That’s right.
Alan: 36:36 So you can’t do that giraffe thing with them necessarily, right, and say come on over here, sweetie, I’ll give you a little pet job? What do you think? I mean, wouldn’t you be scared of that?
Betty: 36:47 I’ve done it.
Alan: 36:48 Oh, get out. Don’t tell me that.
Betty: 36:51 Yeah. They understand, Alan. I don’t-
Alan: 36:55 You mean a wild, feral animal?
Betty: 37:03 In, let’s say, one of the enclosures where it’s lifelike-
Alan: 37:10 Right, where they have vegetation and stuff.
Betty: 37:12 They think they’re in the wild, because it’s maybe way out in the outside edges, they can’t get out. But as far as they’re concerned, they’re in the wild. It’s just the way you approach them and the way you just do it by degrees. I’ve been so lucky it works.
Alan: 37:45 If you wanted to give a tip … I don’t know if this can translate into tips. But if you wanted to give a tip to somebody who wants to get closer to an animal, even to their own pet or to other animals-
Betty: 38:00 Keep your voice down.
Alan: 38:02 Keep your voice down?
Betty: 38:04 Keep your voice down. Just stay still, and just say, come on, baby, come on. Come on over here. I’d like to see … Come on, come on. Pretty soon, they’re paying attention. They’re not threatening anymore. What the hell does she want? What does she want? Well, maybe I better go over there and see what she wants. I love it.
Alan: 38:32 So keep your voice down. Be inviting.
Betty: 38:35 Keep your voice down, and don’t be afraid. If you’re afraid, they pick it up immediately.
Alan: 38:46 What’s their reaction to that then? They try to dominate you?
Betty: 38:52 Sometimes, depending on the individual animal. They try to dominate you, or they’ll want to get away. They won’t let you even close to them.
Alan: 39:09 You’re a good relater to people as well. Have you learned anything about relating to animals that you apply to relating to people do you think?
Betty: 39:23 I may do it without realizing it, that if you meet somebody for the first time … Like the whole time we’ve been sitting here, this nice engineer, I’ve been hitting on him while I’m talking to you.
Alan: 39:44 That same basic joke, no matter how many times you do it, you get me with it, because I don’t see it coming.
MUSIC BRIDGE
You’re a great improviser. It’s wonderful. It really sounds like you’ve improvised your way through life, because you don’t have a plan for the next 20 years, do you?
Betty: 23:24 Not really. You take what comes along, and it’s so wonderful, at this age, at 98, to have things still coming along. But I can’t plan them, because it could stop tomorrow. People would say, she’s 98 years old. We don’t want her.

Betty: 40:08 Just hang out as long as I can, that’s all. To be 98 years old and as healthy as I am, Alan, is a privilege. It really is. I have no aches or pains. I mean, not too many people at this age are as healthy as I am.
Alan: 40:35 I think at any age. I mean, to not have aches and pains. I had aches and pains when I was 40. You look crestfallen. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up something negative, but it’s in the past. I’m okay now.
Betty: 40:56 You better be okay.
Alan: 41:01 I don’t want to make you stay longer than you’re comfortable. Pardon me. We do something to end our shows, the seven quick questions. They’re not embarrassing questions. They’re fun. Just see if you’re … Let me get them up here. It’s going to take a second. First question, what do you wish you really understood?
Betty: 42:07 Negative people. I just don’t understand them, because they’ll take good stuff and screw it up, and I don’t understand that.
Alan: 42:23 How do you tell someone they have their facts wrong?
Betty: 42:31 I don’t do that very often or very well, because I’m not sure of the facts myself.
Alan: 42:38 Nobody’s ever answered the question that way. That’s great. What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Betty: 42:57 Betty, now clean it up, and let’s … The strangest question anybody’s ever [crosstalk 00:43:05]
Alan: 43:05 You’re talking to yourself, “Betty, clean it up,” before you answer the question.
Betty: 43:09 Yeah.
Alan: 43:12 You have a question that’s so strange you don’t want to say it into a microphone. That’s a good enough answer, I think, right there. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Betty: 43:27 You should know better than I, because I’m a compulsive talker, and I go blithering on. You handle it so beautifully. You let me go blithering on, and then you come back, and you’re right back in the interview again.
Alan: 43:48 That sounds like more of a description of what you do than what I do, but that sounds good. How do you like to start a real conversation when you’re sitting next to someone you don’t know at a dinner party?
Betty: 44:02 Hi, sailor, [inaudible 00:44:05]
Alan: 44:11 It’s so often you’re at a dinner party with a sailor too [inaudible 00:44:14] works every time. We sort of touched on this a little bit as we were talking. What gives you confidence?
Betty: 44:31 You go out scared to death with that audience, and I have terrible stage fright problems. But the audience’s reaction and their response, pretty soon you find yourself comfortable and enjoying and interacting with them.
Alan: 44:54 That’s great. That’s that connection. You get nourishment from the connection.
Betty: 44:59 Yes.
Alan: 45:01 Last question. What book changed your life?
Betty: 45:07 The Wizard of Oz.
Alan: 45:09 Yeah.
Betty: 45:12 I’ve got all the Oz books. I’ve got 48 Oz books. I fell in love with the Oz books, and so I just … They changed my life. They made me a reader. I will read anything I can get my hands on, and then go back and read the Oz books again.
Alan: 45:33 You’ve read them many times?
Betty: 45:34 Yes.
Alan: 45:36 That’s so interesting. Let me ask, before we break up and I can let you get back to real life.
Betty: 45:43 I like this life.
Alan: 45:43 Let me ask Graham and Sara. Do you want to unmute yourself and tell me is there anything that came up that you wish I had pursued more?
Graham: 45:58 I was wondering how she first got into her first job? Which is remarkable. [crosstalk 00:46:03]
Alan: 46:02 I was wondering the same thing, and I didn’t bring it up. Anything else?
Alan: 46:13 So mute yourselves up again. Do you remember how it came about that you got your first acting job?
Betty: 46:23 [inaudible 00:46:23] high school. In grammar school, I got the lead in the school play.
Alan: 46:29 Do you remember what the play was?
Betty: 46:32 No, it was an original.
Alan: 46:33 An original.
Betty: 46:35 Then I got the lead in the high school play.
Alan: 46:44 So you knew you liked to perform from that experience.
Betty: 46:47 I loved it. I loved it, yeah.
Alan: 46:50 What about your first paid job? What was that?
Betty: 46:55 My first paid job. Oh, I should be able to answer this right off the top of my head.
Alan: 47:02 Usually we all remember that. What about the early days did you start … I mean, did you start as a weather broadcaster or a sidekick? What was the first few years of being on the air?
Betty: 47:20 On the air, I would be … Al Jarvis was a star on the … And I was sort of his buffer.
Alan: 47:39 The second banana.
Betty: 47:40 Yeah.
Alan: 47:43 So you began in broadcasting. Did you act on the stage first?
Betty: 47:50 No, no.
Alan: 47:51 So right away from the beginning broadcasting.
Betty: 47:53 Broadcasting. Well, if you don’t count school plays. School plays were on stage.
Alan: 48:02 Even that, I think, gives you a basic understanding of the relationship between you and the audience.
Betty: 48:10 And what you get back from the audience, not just what they think of you, but what they give back. Without that reciprocal thing, it’s hard to overcome fear and anxiety and all that, unless you get that back from the audience.
Alan: 48:36 What about when they’re not actually there? They’re on the other end of the camera, but you can’t see them or hear them or sense what they’re going through. Do you nevertheless have a sense of their being there in some way?
Betty: 48:52 Oh, yes. Oh, my goodness, yes. Oh, because even if you’re not there and you can’t see them, you’re still talking to them. That camera, that lens is people as far as I’m concerned. When I’m talking to that lens, I’m not talking to a camera lens, I’m talking to people.
Alan: 49:20 You sense something about what’s happening to them as you talk to them. Can you describe that experience? Because a lot of people know that, when you talk to a camera, you really are talking to people, but they’re not able to follow through and actually believe that they’re talking to people and not be as personal and relaxed as they would be if they were really talking to people. Is there something that goes through your head that says remember there’s somebody there? Do you just automatically know you’re talking to them?
Betty: 49:57 I just automatically know that that camera lens is not a … You ignore the fact that it’s a camera lens. When you’re talking to it, you know that, out there, there’s a whole bunch of people that are listening to you.
Alan: 50:18 Betty, this has been so enjoyable for me. This is so memorable.
Betty: 50:23 Oh, may I say the same.
Alan: 50:26 Here, I’m touching your fingers. Thank you so much.
Betty: 50:31 Oh, sorry.
Alan: 50:31 You don’t have to take the microphone home.
Betty: 50:33 I can if I want to.
Alan: 50:37 Thank you, Betty.
Betty: 50:39 Thank you so much, Alan. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
CREDITS
Betty White is a national treasure and she’s more popular than ever! I loved her recent appearance on Saturday Night Live and her NFL commercial spots.
And, what you might not know is that she’s one of the first women in television to have taken creative control both in front of and behind the camera when she starred in and co-produced the nationally syndicated comedy “Life with Elizabeth.” The show helped Betty win her first Emmy Award and successfully launched her a long and wonderful career.
If you want to try and keep up with Betty, please follow her on Twitter @BettyMWhite