Betty White -- a lover of people, dogs, bears, games and hot dogs

I've interviewed Betty White often over the years and found her to be just what you'd expect -- smart, optimistic and caring. This story -- keyed to an Aug. 21 special on PBS -- is different: White wasn't available for a Television Critics Association session, but many of the people who know her were. Combining that with her memoir, here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

By now, Betty White
seems qualified for the TV version of sainthood.

Just ask Arthur
Duncan, who worked with her 64 years ago. “She was probably one of
the nicest, the grandest, the greatest of all people that I've had
the chance to meet,” he said.

Or ask Georgia
Engel, who sees her nowadays ... when they often talk about animals,
including a grizzly bear named Bambam. “She told me how to give
Bambam a marshmallow with my teeth, and the bear takes it,” Engel
said. “And Betty was so happy.”

Clearly, White –
the subject of a PBS profile Aug. 21 -- is beloved by colleagues,
bears and situation-comedy fans. At 96, she's been on 20 seasons of
sitcoms, led by “Golden Girls” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”;
she's been nominated for 21 Emmys, winning five times.

And there's more:
“She was the very first woman to appear on television,” said PBS'
Jerry Liwanag.

Or, at least, the
first to actually perform on TV. There had been some speeches and
such, but in 1939, a Los Angeles broadcaster tested TV. It asked two
Beverly Hills High teens to sing as the couple in the operetta “The
Merry Widow.” White, then 17, did the show in her graduation dress.

That was only seen
by their parents and a few others, she wrote in her memoir. “Our
telecast only carried from the sixth to the ground floor.”

That was the start
of television ... and her only role for a decade. She joined the
wartime Voluntary Services and briefly married twice – a pilot in
1945, an agent-turned-salesman in '47. It was in '49 that she started
to get work on a Los Angeles station – commercials, a song in a
disc jockey's special, a very brief comedy show and then “Grab Your
Phone,” a quiz show with viewers calling in answers.

White was just one
of the “phone girls,” but she sat at the end and adlibbed with
the host. That led to “Hollywood on Television,” Los Angeles'
only daytime show. (“It was us or the test pattern,” White
wrote.) She and the host chatted with guests, with each other and
sometimes even with passers-by. “Betty was doing five-and-a-half
hours, six days a week, live,” said Steve Boettcher, who produced
and directed the PBS special. “She really honed her skill for live

White did sketches
... and added a half-hour sitcom (“Life With Elizabeth”) that
aired nationally. She needed to be fast -- a trait she continued,
said Gavin MacLeod, her “Mary Tyler Moore Show” co-star: “She
could look at a script (and) go up and do it. She was the quickest
study I had ever worked with.”

Compared to that
local-TV blur, her network debut was a breeze. “The Betty White
Show” was a live half-hour each weekday; White would chat with
guests, sing with the band and introduce other acts.

One was Duncan, a
dancer and singer, then 21. “It was a little scary, ... because it
was the first time I appeared on a national television show,” he
said. “(But) it was operated like a family show should.”

That became clear,
he said, when some Southern stations objected to him being there.
They “resented black Americans on the program .... I think that she
just stood up for her beliefs and that ended that.”

In the two decades
that followed, White was an occasional actress and a frequent guest
on talk shows and game shows ... especially “Password,” with host
Allen Ludden.

That started their
romance, Boettcher said -- “their love of games, their love of
'Password,' their love of word games. Betty still plays Scrabble
every week.”

They married in 1963
– he died at 63, in 1981 -- and linked with Ludden's friend, Grant
Tinker, and Tinker's then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore. “They
double-dated all the time,” Boettcher said.

When “Rhoda”
(Valerie Harper) was spun off into its own show, Moore's show
(produced by Tinker) created Sue Ann Nivens. It was the start of
White's comedy surge ... which was recharged at 88, when she hosted
“Saturday Night Live” and started a six-year run in “Hot in

That show ended in
2015, giving White, then 93, more time for occasional guest roles and
for her love of animals, games ... and hot dogs.

Yes, hot dogs; she
eats them every day, MacLeod said. “Betty White can do anything and
look as good as she does and live the life she's lived.”

-- “Betty White:
First Lady of Television,” 8-9:30 p.m. Aug. 21, most PBS stations;
some will vary, due to pledge drives.

-- “Golden Girls”
reruns often on Hallmark and TV Land, “Mary Tyler Moore Show” is
5-6 a.m. Fridays on Sundance; also, via digital, streaming and Amazon

-- “Here We Go
Again: My Life in Television,” by White, 1995, Scribner