Betty White had a mischievous side, and she loved to have fun and crack jokes on the set of “The Golden Girls.” But there were times when she was all business.
Those times were often on Monday mornings. In the early years of the NBC comedy, White, the legendary performer who died this week at the age of 99, would often sit with “Golden Girls” executive producer Tony Thomas and dig into the overnight ratings for the hit sitcom that aired in Saturday time slots for the entirety of its 1985-1992 run.
“When I think of Betty, I think of fun,” Thomas told Variety. “She liked to have a good time at work. We laughed a lot. She was just the best.”
Thomas and White had a bond from their mutual experience of having grown up alongside with the medium of television. Thomas is the son of legendary entertainer Danny Thomas, an early TV star in the domestic comedy “Make Room for Daddy” who became a wildly successful producer of “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and many other hits. Tony Thomas followed in his father’s footsteps as a principle of Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions.
White was a trailblazer as a local TV personality in Los Angeles and a multi-hyphenate producer and star of the 1950s sitcom “Life With Elizabeth.” That series, shepherded by future “My Three Sons” producer Don Fedderson, aired in Los Angeles on KLAC-TV (now KCOP-TV) and in other markets in an early form of syndication.
“We had a lot in common,” Thomas recalled. “We shared a lot of interests. She and I would go over the ratings very closely. She knew more about all of that than the other ladies.”
Stan Zimmerman, who was a writer on Season 1 of “Golden Girls” with his then-partner James Berg, remembers how White’s immense talent shaped the series. He also recalled that she had an impressive “special connection” with the studio audience on filming days.
“She was a light bulb that just lit up, especially when the studio audience came in,” Zimmerman told Variety. “She had a bond with them. She would talk to them between takes. She just had a special connection with the television audience.”
One of White’s signatures in the guise of her “Golden Girls” character, the good-hearted Rose Nylund, was her wacky anecdotes about strange customs and locals she knew growing up in St. Olaf Township, a fictional Norwegian farming town in Minnesota. When writers and producers saw how well White delivered the first-ever tale crafted about St. Olaf, the immediate reaction was “oh, we have to lean into this,” Zimmerman recalled. “She told the stories in such a fun, innocent way. And they got crazier and crazier as we went into it.”
White more than held her own in the formidable ensemble with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty. Thomas remembers White as unfailingly generous with her co-stars.
“She had it all. She could do physical comedy, she knew how to help react to a joke to help another person’s line work,” Thomas said. “She knew how to deliver her own line and follow-up with a rhythm that helped the comedy even more.”
Thomas credits the skill of the “all-star team” of stars for the remarkable longevity of “Golden Girls” as a pop culture touchstone. He notes that every so often, a new generation finds the show on cable, or nowadays on streaming platforms.
“College students find it, younger people watch the show with grandparents. They can all laugh together,” Thomas said. “The humor stands the test of time. But the show doesn’t go on like that, even with good writing, unless those characters are loveable and people you want to care about. That doesn’t happen without those ladies. They could deliver anything that needed to be delivered and assist each other in getting it done.”
White was nominated for lead actress in comedy series for all seven seasons of “Golden Girls.” She took home the trophy, one of her seven career Emmy wins, in 1986, after the show’s debut season. With all of her success, she was never anything but humble and kind to her colleagues, from her Emmy-nominated costars to every member of the crew.
“She was blessed with an unbelievably long career,” Thomas said. “She knew it. She was grateful for it. She showed her gratitude to everybody she worked with. She went out of her way to be kind to all.”
Moreover, as a co-worker, there was nobody better. “Ask any crew member,” Thomas said. “She lived to cut it up. If there was an opportunity to laugh, she found it.”
(Pictured: “Golden Girls” producers Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, Betty White and Sunset Gower Studios CEO Bob Papazian at the 2006 dedication of the stage where “Golden Girls” was shot.)
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