The minute I heard Betty White’s familiar, cinnamon-sweet voice over the wire from her Brentwood home, it wasn’t hard to conjure up her pert smile, perfectly coifed blonde hair and devilish wink. She sounded exactly like Rose from “Golden Girls,” and the narrator for the Tournament of Roses Parade.
The six-time Emmy winner has a second home in Carmel, but she’s so busy acting that she’s seldom there. “She’s not sitting around eating bon bons,” said Donna Ellerbusch, White’s right-hand woman.
The interview took some finessing. However, the self-proclaimed animal nut would be appearing at an animal adoption/dedication ceremony at the new Fountain of Woof in Carmel Plaza and she was willing to talk about it.
“Okey dokey,” she said of the Q & A format. And words flowed like a river...
If this woman has a mean bone in her body, I couldn’t find it. She won’t even squash the aphids on her roses. She winces as her gardener does the dirty deed. And where her soft spot manifests most is with animals.
“Some of my best friends are gorillas,” says the animal advocate, whose work as a trustee of the Morris Animal Foundation and service with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association has earned her the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Humane Award.
We bonded when we talked of our adopted Himalayan cats and how we both suspect they are part rag doll because they go limp in our arms. She calls hers Bob Cat. I call mine Lynx for his ear tufts and large padded paws.
“People used to say, ‘Why do you spend so much time on animals? Don’t you like people?’” She chuckles. “Well, lately, the way people have been behaving, they may be right.”
Q: You could be the most likeable actress aside from Doris Day. Why is that?
A: I have no idea... It’s not something you work at or do. You show up on time, know your lines, smell good and that’s it.
Q: When and how are you bad?
A: Mmm... I guess when I’m around animals, I don’t pay attention to people. I try not to be bad. I don’t believe in it. I think there’s another alternative.
Q: What would make you mad?
A: Selfishness, inconsideration, unkindness.
Q: What would you consider a bad hair day for you?
A: (Laughs) Oh, 365 days a year, I have bad hair. It’s so thin and fine, I’m glad I have any left. I’m 82.
Q: Were you always the Golden Girl? Or did you have a rough childhood?
A: I was so blessed. I’m the luckiest old broad on two feet. I was a happy only child. The three of us were such buddies.
Q: So, what is the tragedy behind your comedy?
A: Sorry about that, I don’t think there is any tragedy. Mother and dad had a delicious sense of humor and managed whenever things were not good to find a way to keep the humor going.
Q: What were you voted in high school?
A: Jack Rich and I were voted best looking in class. It’s hard to live down best looking, but it goes away very quickly when gravity takes over.
Q: Cat ownership outnumbers dogs, so why are cats still maligned? And why isn’t there a Fountain of Meow?
A: Cats are a little too classy to drink out of fountains. People who don’t like cats haven’t been around them. As we speak, my cat is on my lap. He’s Velcro. I can’t pry him off. There’s the old joke: dogs have masters, cats have staff.
Q: Are all your animals adopted?
A: Yes. My golden retriever, Kitta, age 9, was raised in Alaska to be a guide dog but his hips didn’t quite measure up. And there’s my little girl, a black and white Shih tzu, Panda, who will be 14. Bob Cat found me nine years ago. I was at the beauty parlor — I have my hair done at 7 a.m. in Beverly Hills — when I got the call there was a beautiful cat outside that was going to be put away... He sat on the ledge in front of me and looked at me with big blue eyes and I said, “Sure, I’ll find a home for him.”
Q: In what ways are you co-dependent with your fur people?
A: We just converse all the time. We read each other like a book. They understand my language and I understand theirs.
Q: What terms of endearment do you use with them?
A: “Pandy boots, how are you sweetheart?” And “Bobolink.” And “Kit Kat” for Kitta.
Q: Name three random acts of kindness your animals have performed.
A: It goes on every day. They cheer me when I am feeling low or tired. They somehow have a way of making me not only smile but laugh out loud.
Q: So, what’s happening at the zoo?
A: I’ve been working with the L.A. zoo for 36 years trying to get a zoo commission. I was thrilled when we got it. The bad news was, the mayor made me V.P. of the commission. They’re doing wonderful construction. They just finished a rain forest for orangutans and chimps. My dear friend Jane Goodall helped advise. We’re in the middle of building a gorilla exhibit.
Q: Funniest incident on your star-studded show “The Pet Set”?
A: When Jimmy and Gloria Stewart came on with their two golden retrievers that he had written poems about. The dogs got excited and took Jimmy and Gloria over the couch, arse over teakettle. Burt Reynolds brought his basset hound Bruiser and Doris Day was on.
Q: You’ve subbed on all the great talk shows. What does it take to be a good host?
A: Listening. Not to just think of the next question, because answers will sometimes take you off in various directions.
Q: You have a blush pink Romantica hybrid tea rose named after you. What would make you blush?
A: (Laughs)... I was a pill pusher in “Ally McBeal” ... In “Lake Placid” I played an old lady who used language that would shame a truck driver... I don’t think anything. I’m too old to blush. I kind of shake my head in disappointment.
Q: What fan most invaded your privacy?
A: One time I came home and a young woman was sitting on the doorstep with her suitcase. She expected to move in. I said, “I’m sorry, we can’t do this.” Yes, I am a private person.
Q: You’re authoring your sixth book and say writing is addictive. When did acting become a habit?
A: In grammar school, I wrote a play and wrote myself into the lead, as any red-blooded American would do. I got on stage and said, “Hey, how long has this been going on?”
Q: Have you dated since your husband Allen Ludden’s death, and what do you know for sure about men?
A: I like them very much. They’re much more interesting than women. I know that’s apolitical, but I enjoy their company more... I never remarried because once you get it right, it’s a tough act to follow.
Q: Fill in the blanks: This is Betty White’s life: ____.
A: Total commitment and, consequently, total enjoyment.
Universal Update: It isn’t often that I meet a celebrity after I’ve interviewed them. However, shortly after our phone interview, I attended the dog fountain christening event where White emceed. It was a paparazzi feeding frenzy and I was leading the pack, stepping on the toes and claws of the 300 people and pooches in attendance.
I shot a roll of her beseeching the crowd to adopt some of the pooches that accompanied models in the fashion show. Amazingly, it went without a single incident. Even the dogs in the audience seemed to agree that this was no place to lift a hind leg or take a chunk out of someone.
Suddenly, I spied the most exquisite tea cup poodle in the audience. With the owners’ permission, I grabbed it and shoved it into White’s hands. Then I sat up and begged for a picture. White, always the good sport, agreed, even though she’s not nuts about dressing up animals.
Later, I found out the dog’s name is Lily May, and she is a registered therapy dog whose owners, Rodger and Susan Knox of Georgia, take her to hospitals and nursing homes, etc., to cheer up the patients. Susan says she sews all the dog’s outfits and regaled me with photographs of Lily wearing: a poncho and sombrero; beach attire; a Santa suit, etc.
A few days later I received, on White’s personal letterhead, in her own handwriting, a cheery letter saying “yes,” she would allow me to use the photo I took. She also wished my cat, Truffle, and me well.
With that darling photo of White on the cover, I knew I could do this book. It was just the kick in the pants I needed to, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do the thing you fear most.”