Betty White's Golden Age

With her 90th birthday special and yet another new show on tap, the comic actress proves her 2010 "comeback" was no fluke.

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, Jan 16, 2012  |  Updated 1:04 AM EDT
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Betty White is getting set for a big birthday celebration.

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When she earned a standing ovation during last week's People's Choice Awards, Betty White responded to her latest accolades with what's become a familiar mix of amusement, humility and mildly sardonic wit.

"I didn't do anything – 90 just happens to you," White quipped.

Sure, White is set to turn 90 this week – a mark that will be celebrated Monday on NBC with a birthday special and a preview of her latest new TV show.

But in some respects, the bigger milestone for White covers a much smaller stretch of time: She's two years into a remarkable comeback that mushroomed from an Internet gimmick into a pop culture phenomenon.

The successful Facebook campaign to get White to host "Saturday Night Live" spurred rare mass, inter-generational agreement at a time when entertainment is becoming increasingly segmented.

While White has been a TV presence from the medium's start, she's probably best known to fans from repeats of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Golden Girls." 

She played starkly different characters on the shows – TV's first cougar and proto-Martha Stewart figure on "MTM" and a sweet, dim-but-wise widow on "The Golden Girls." But the Betty White persona that endures is one of an actress who exudes decency, likeability and expert comic timing, used to deliver jokes that signal she’s in on the gag. (As she said during her “SNL” monologue: “I didn’t know what Facebook was. And now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time.”)

White could have ended her deserved victory lap after the 2010 "SNL" stint, but now she's among the hardest-working performers of any age, frequently hitting the talk show circuit and generating most of the laughs that emanate from "Hot in Cleveland."

She's following in the comedic footsteps of George Burns, another great longtime second banana who became a different kind of star after his octogenarian Oscar win for “The Sunshine Boys” in 1975. The beloved Burns performed regularly until just a couple years before his death at 100 in 1996.

Like Burns, White – whose birthday special guests range from Tina Fey to Carol Burnett – enjoys a special connection with a wide audience. Also like Burns, White appears determined to make the most of her encore act. Her newest effort, “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers,” is a prank show in which the oldsters punk the young punks. Check out a preview below from the latest installment of Betty White's Golden Age:
 

 

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.

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