Betty White's first 90 years have been fun

One of the pleasures of Television Critics Association tours involves interviewing Betty White. Now she's busier than ever, with her 90th birthday coming Tuesday and a TV party Monday. Here's the story I sent to papers:


A strange thing has happened to old
folks in show business … and maybe everywhere else.

They have simply kept going. That was
clear during recent Television Critics Association sessions.

There was Tim Conway at 78, with droll
comedy ad-libs. And Tony Bennett at 85, with an immaculate concert.
“I have to do it,” Bennett said. “And it will always be that
way; I will never retire.”

Then there was Betty White, unimpressed
by Bennett's age. “He's a kid,” she said.

On Tuesday, White turns 90; one day
earlier, NBC gives her a birthday special.

Robert Greenblatt, NBC's programming
chief, calls her “one of our national treasures”; right after the
special, he has a sneak-preview of a show the network calls “Betty
White's Off Their Rockers.”

White grants that she has little to do
with “Rockers,” other than hosting and sometimes meeting the
elderly people who pull hidden-camera tricks. Still, she has a lot
else to do, including a cable comedy and talk-show appearances. In
the past year, she's been with Letterman, Leno, Kimmel, Fallon,
Ferguson , Stewart and Ripa; she's won an Emmy (her seventh) for
hosting “Saturday Night Live.”

Yes, she loves the attention. “I'm in
the acting business,” White said. “That's the ego business.”

And she figures she shares a passion
with Bennett and others.

“They love what they do and … that
keeps you energized,” White said. “In the first part of your
career, you're trying so hard to get somewhere. (If) the jobs keep
coming in, you've got to celebrate.”

She was a California kid who was at
pioneering station KTLA, almost 70 years ago.

“I did my first television show in my
graduation-from-high-school dress,” White said. “The senior-class
president and I went downtown and the audience was standing around in
the Packard showroom and we were up in the fifth floor, doing a
version of 'The Merry Widow.' And it was very exciting and all that,
but I never thought it would go.”

It did and she became an on-air
sidekick for the daytime “Al Jarvis Show.” She made $5 for doing
one show a week, then $50 for five shows and $150 a week for six
shows a week.

“I thought I had died and gone to
heaven,” White said. Soon, she was adding another show. “I
started a half-hour (weekly) variety show at night, where I could
sing. And it was like going to television college, because everything
that happened to you happened on camera. You had to handle it.”

It was at that station in 1953 that she
made “Life With Elizabeth,” a sweet-spirited marital situation
comedy that sometimes had just two people and an announcer. It ran
for two short seasons, syndicated nationally; bigger sitcoms – from
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “The Golden Girls” –

Now – 59 years after that first
sitcom – she has “Hot in Cleveland” and a grand birthday party.
“I have a major regret – that Allen Ludden isn't with me,”
White said.

He was the Phi Beta Kappa game-show
host who met White – a sharp game-player – when she was a
“Password” contestant. They were married for 18 years; she's been
widowed for 30.

She spends her time writing books,
working on projects involving animals (especially dogs) … and, now,
being celebrated for her age.

“Don't give me any credit,” White
said, “I didn't do anything to get to be 90. It just happened.”

Betty White everywhere

– “Betty White's 90th
Birthday” and “Off Their Rockers,” 8 and 9:30 p.m. Monday, NBC,

– “Hot in Cleveland,” 10 p.m.
Wednesdays, TV Land, plus reruns. Leading into the birthday, they
include 5-9 p.m. Saturday, 9-11 a.m.Sunday; also, 11 p.m. Tuesday,
her birthday

– “Golden Girls” reruns, 8-10
a.m. weekdays, Hallmark; also, birthday-eve marathon, 3 p.m. to 2

– Several books; the latest is “If
You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't)


Ashton's uncovered face is back

Ashton Kutcher showed up at the Television Critics Association sessions today, complete with a less-hairy face. Here's the story I sent to papers; also, please read the previous blog on Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman play Friday on PBS:


Now that viewers have embraced the
new-look “Two and a Half Men,” they'll have a newer look to
adjust to: On Monday, Ashton Kutcher's character cuts his hair and

“It's a really funny episode,”
Kutcher said today. “You should watch it.”
The clean-shaven look had
propelled Kutcher through years as a model, then “That '70s Show”
and romantic comedy movies. Between jobs, however, that changes.

“When I'm not working, I let it be a
growing field,” Kucher said, in case the next role calls for more
hair. So he happened to meet producers during a hairy time. Lorre
says he liked the notion of “someone who doesn't look like anyone
else on television.”

Or think like anyone else. “The first
time I met Ashton,” Lorre sai, “he launched into a discussion of
the computer codes of Skype.”

That's the flip side of Kutcher, who
has companies dealing with tech, investment and TV. “I was a
biolchemical engineering major in college,” he said. “I've always
stayed up with the technology.”

So his character became an Internet
billionaire, moping about his impending divorce. “There's a
childlike quality we intentionally brought to the character,”
Kutcher said.

It was a big change from the sardonic
humor of the character Charlie Sheen played, but audiences have
stayed. In the Nielsen ratings for last week, “Men” was No. 6
overall and No. 5 for ages 18-49; it had more viewers then its top
timeslot competitors (“The Bachelor” and “Fear Factor”)

The final Sheen season wasn't as
chaotic as people thing, the producers and actors say. “Charlie was
always awesome on the set,” said Angus Jones, who plays the teen
Jake. “It was never not fun.”

But as Sheen's substance problems grew,
there was consideration of simply ending the show after the eighth
season. “We absolutely considered it,” Lorre said.

CBS insisted and they pondered the new
characters. “We went through all the possibilities,” Lorre said,
exaggerating a bit. “He's a rabbi,he's an alien, he's a talking
horse ...”

Then they met Kutcher and decided he's
a lovelorn tech guy with lots of hair – for a while. On Monday's
episode – the 15th in a 24-episode season – Zoey
(British actress Sophie Winkleman) tries to convince him to get a
shave and haircut.

Things are settled now – except that
Kutcher only signed a one-year deal. He's talking about doing a
couple of movies, but would do them in what he refers to as the
hiatus. “I would be interested in coming back, if we can work it

– “Two and a Half Men,” 9 p.m.
Mondays, CBS



One-woman play lifts us up easy

In the vast wasteland of Friday-night television, PBS has inserted a rich variety of concerts. This week, there's "Let Me Down Easy," Ann Deavere's one-woman show about life and death and health care and more.  Here's the story I sent to papers:


As Anna Deavere Smith crafts her shows,
one fact stands out: People are VERY different.

The latest example, “Let Me Down
Easy,” reaches many PBS stations (check local listings) Friday.
Under a broad theme – life, death, medicine and more – she
portrays such people as:

– Ruth Katz, the former associate
dean of Yale's medicine school. She even threw a big party, Smith
said. “I'm probably one of the few playwrights who's had a
character throw a party for her.”

– A few well-known people, some of
them now dead – former Gov. Anne Richards, the Rev. Peter Gomes and
film critic Joel Siegel. “Joel was telling jokes when he was almost
too frail to speak.”

– One relative. “My Aunt Lorraine
came with busloads of people from Baltimore,” Smith said. “She's
80 and they're like: 'Now I've got to put up with her talking about
she's on Broadway.'”

Or off-Broadway, a logical spot for
Smith. She's been “creating a truly unique and individual form of
theater,” said David Horn, who produces PBS' “Great

Smith interviews people, then portrays
some of them in plays. Some of her shows centered on a specific event
– including riots on each coast; this one is more of a concept.

The suggestion began more than a decade
ago, when the Yale medical school wanted her to create performances.
She finally began interviews in 2005, debuting “Easy” four years

“I thought it was a play on the
vulnerability and the resilience of the human body,” Smith said.
“Then (director) Mike Nichols came to see it and said it was about
kindness. I translated that into 'grace.'”

From patients to a New Orleans doctor
during Hurricane Katrina, her characters show grace under pressure. A
prime example is Brent Williams, a rodeo bull-rider she met at an
Idaho wedding.

“He walked in the room and looked
like a million bucks – sort of Montgomery Clift, all banged up,”
Smith said “And I couldn't take my eyes off him.”

He was, she decided, her opposite. “He
didn't got to a lot of school. He's a completely physical person. He
gets banged up. He's proud of his injuries; I'm terrified of getting

Smith showed him her world. “I took
him to my apartment, which is a loft” in New York City's Tribeca.

Here was a successful actress – a
regular on “Nurse Jackie” and “West Wing” – showing him her
home. His response: “Uhh, it's just one room.”

– “Let Me Down Easy”

– 9-11 p.m. Friday, under the “Great
Performances” banner

– Many PBS stations (check local


Fox: In a state of excessive plenty

This is a busy time at the Television Critics Association sessions. Here's a story I sent to papers about Fox:


Life is very difficult – well, maybe
a little difficult – for a first-place TV network.

“We have some high-class problems,”
said Kevin Reilly, Fox's programming chief.

Now those problems grow. There are
major shows – “House,” “Terra Nova,” “Fringe” – he
might not bring back next year; there are people trying to copy or
pillage pieces of “American Idol.”

Those problems expand because Fox has:

– Fewer spaces. It was created with
15 hours of primetime hours (instead of 22) to duck federal rules.

– Expensive shows. For “Terra Nova”
and “Fringe,” there are big-budget special effects. “House”
follows the TV habit of costs expanding as shows get oplder.

– Success. Fueled mainly by its own
“Idol” clone (“The X Factor”), Fox's Nielsen rating for the
first 15 weeks of this season were up 14-15 percent. CBS is up a tad,
ABC is even, NBC and CW plunged.

This mid-season brings three more
high-concept dramas – “Alcatraz” (from the “Lost” people),
“Touch” (from “Heroes” creator Tim Kring) and “The Finder”
(created so “Bones” can trim back to make room for Emily
Deschanel's maternity leave).

A series surplus is growing. Last year,
Reilly drew criticism for dumping “The Chicago Code,” “Human
Target” and “America's Most Wanted.” This year? “We've done a
good job of avoiding some of these decisions,” he said.

He's sure of a few things: “Allen
Gregory” won't be back, “New Girl” will be. “Glee” will be
back, but won't add a sequel; the characters who graduate –
including Rachel (Lea Michele) – will stay.

Other shows bring questions, including:

– “House.” Last summer, Reilly
implied that this season – its eighth – would be its last on Fox.
Now? “We just simply haven't made the decision.” If the show
isn't brought back, he said, he'll give it enough warning to have a
finale – except that “House” still could jump to NBC – which
produces it.

– “Terra Nova.” Reilly praised
its epic visuals and its cast, but not its storytelling. “The show
was hunting for itself creatively through the season.” Ratings were
fairly high; costs were very high.

– “Fringe.” Many critics and
science-fiction fans have loved the show, but it was renewed for this
season only by being exiled to Fridays, a difficult night. “We lose
a lot of money on that show,” Reilly said. “At that rating, on
that night, it's almost impossible for us to make money.”

By comparison, “American Idol”
remains on top. Reilly does expect it to drop in ratings this year,
as viewers digest NBC's “The Voice” and “America's Got Talent”
and Fox's own “The X Factor.”

Some shows even loot talent. Ryan
Seacrest, the “Idol” host, already has a deal with one of NBC's
cable networks (E). He said he's negotiating with NBC, but wouldn't
comment on what a deal might include or preclude. “I can't imagine
life without 'American Idol,'” he said.

Other shows tend to hire “Idol”
people. “X Factor” has Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul as judges;
“The Voice” is adding Kelly Clarkson – the first “Idol”
champion – as a mentor.

“This show ('Idol') has created
superstars (and) other shows want to use those superstars,” said
Mike Darnell, Fox's alternative-show chief. “We're not hiring a lot
of people from 'The Voice.'”


It's know-your-Downton time

As the "Downton Abbey" sequel nears (see previous story), you're forgiven for not remembering who's who and who does what.

No problem; here's a handy guide I sent to papers:


Life can get tangled inside a grand
estate in 1916 England. As the second round of PBS' “Downton Abbey”
begins, here's a guide to the characters:

The Crawleys

– Robert, the Earl of Grantham. His
adult life has simply involved being head of the estate.

– Cora, the Countess of Grantham.
She's Robert's wife, with three daughters.

– Lady Mary, their eldest. The
complicated rules tied to the estate say only a male can inherit it;
she was going to marry a distant cousin who would run it, but he was
reported among the Titanic dead. Mary has lived her life cautiously,
except for one night she gave in to a Turkish diplomat. He promptly
died in her bed,a scandal that keeps almost emerging.

– Lady Edith, the middle sister. She
wrote a spiteful letter about Mary's sinful night; Mary retaliated by
sabotaging her romance with a local farmer.

– Lady Sybil, the most independent.
She's thought about jobs, political causes and the chauffeur.

– Matthew. A small-town, small-time
lawyer, he's suddenly in line to inherit the estate. He asked Mary,
his distant cousin, to marry him, but she dawdled so long that fell
apart. Now he's an Army officer.

– Isobel, Matthew's mother. She has
nursing skills and has already been overhauling the hospital that the
family supports financially. She sees bigger changes ahead.

– Violet, the Dowager Countess of
Grantham. Disapproving of most changes, she ranges from a core
decency to classic crotchety.

The help

– Charles Carson, the butler, runs
the estate, with endless honesty and a distrust of the 20th

– Elsie Hughes, the housekeeper.

– John Bates, the earl's valet. He's
been wounded in the military and in marriage.

– Sarah O'Brien, the countess' maid.
She grumbles and schemes a lot.

– Beryl Patmore, the cook. A simple
soul, she's good-hearted.

– Anna Smith. She's the head
housemaid, with two others under her. She sees the goodness under the
solemn surface of the troubled Bates.

– Tom Branson, the chauffeur. He's
interested in Irish politics, Lady Sybil and world change.

– Thomas Barrow and William Mason,
the footmen. Heading to war, they had opposite approaches. William
was idealistic; Thomas – who grumbles a lot with O'Brien –
schemes for light duty.

– Daisy Robinson, the kitchen maid.
Sweet and sometimes clueless, she barely notices William's love for
her. The handsome and heartless Thomas toyed with her, mostly because
he could.

The Emmy awards

– Maggie Smith, 77, won for her work
as the dowager; it's her second Emmy, to go with two Oscars.

– Julian Fellowes won for his
scripts. He also has an Oscar, for “Gosford Park.”

– Others were for the directing,
costumes and cinematography; also, for best movie or mini-series.

– Elizabeth McGovern, an American who
lives in England, was nominated for her work as the countess; other
nods went to the sets, casting, editing and sound editing. The Golden
Globes nominated both Hugh Bonneville and McGovern, the show's earl
and countess.

The times (check local listings)

– 9 p.m. Sundays, from Jan. 8 to Feb.

– The opener and the final two weeks
are each two hours; the rest are one hour.