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Betty White’s career spanned six decades. Here are its best moments

Transcript

Amna Nawaz: As we reported earlier in the program, TV legend Betty White has died at 99. Her career spanned more than 60 years, and included a whole host of unforgettable roles.

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans joins me now to talk about White's legacy and her role in making sitcoms appointment viewing.

Eric, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Always good to see you.

Betty White did it all, right? She did talk shows and sitcoms and movies and hosting. It's not fair to ask this question, because you can't cover six decades in one answer, but what stands out to you over that decades-long career?

Eric Deggans, National Public Radio: Well, a few things stand out to me.

Number one, she was someone who did -- she was old-school showbiz, in the sense that she did everything. And she did everything and made it look effortless. So, when she was starring in radio, when she was a queen on game shows, she was a great panelist on game shows,and then she transitioned to sitcoms, and she even produced her own talk show.

NBC asked her to co-host "The Today Show" many, many years ago. She didn't want to move to New York, so Barbara Walters got that job.

(LAUGHTER)

Eric Deggans: I mean, she did so many things.

And then, later in her life, she transitioned to doing commercials and sort of being this saucy grandma kind of character. So, she did so many things well. And then, in her private life, she was also an advocate for -- against animal cruelty and for animal rights, and someone who always seemed to be on the right side of issues.

Even when she was starting her TV career, and she was hosting the show, and she had a Black performer on the show, and Southern states pressured her, Southern TV stations pressured her to drop that Black performer, she refused to do so, and, in fact, gave him more screen time.

Amna Nawaz: So, Eric, I, like millions of others, came to love her as Rose on "The Golden Girls," but do you have a favorite Betty White role?

Eric Deggans: My favorite role of hers was as Betty White later in her career.

She developed this ability to poke fun at what people expected her to be because of her age, but she was still very sharp, very relevant, willing to poke fun at what people expected of her as an octogenarian.

And I thought that was -- I really loved that part of her career. I loved seeing her host "Saturday Night Live" in her late 80s, after a public campaign from people on Facebook to push the show into having her as a guest host. And so I really -- she does a great Snickers commercial for the Super Bowl.

I really enjoyed that part of her life, even though she did, of course, many, many great things before that.

Amna Nawaz: Eric, entertainment is such an age-conscious industry, especially for women, and Betty White really embraced her age.

In fact, I want to share with you one thing she told the AP in a recent interview. She said: "Don't try to be young. Just open your mind. Stay interested in stuff. There are so many things I won't live long enough to find out about, but I'm still curious about them."

I wonder what you think it was about Betty White that helped her to find generation after generation of new fans.

Eric Deggans: What I think was great about Betty White is that she was smart and talented, and I think she also understood how to find the funny in whatever she was doing whenever she was doing it.

So, when she was on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," she was playing a character who was sweet on the surface, but, when you got to know her off-camera, was very cynical and aggressive. And then, when she was on "Golden Girls," she played a character that was more naive and open-hearted.

And then, when she was on "Hot in Cleveland," she played a character that was kind of like the saucy grandma, who had this secret life of raising all kinds of heck that you never thought that she would be involved in.

And she always found a way to make those things funny and evolve with the times and figure out how to present herself in a way that would be really entertaining to people, and that they would also find really appealing.

And that is something that's not easy to do, especially over a 60-year career. It's just amazing how much she achieved.

Amna Nawaz: That is NPR's Eric Deggans helping us remember the life and legacy of Betty White.

Eric, thank you so much for your time.

Eric Deggans: Thank you for having me.

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