(Editor's Note: Tuesday was actress Betty White's 90th birthday. In 2008, I had the pleasure of interviewing her just when she was releasing her new book "Together" with her long time friend Tom Sullivan. Here is the article as it appeared.)
It’s early on a sunny Monday morning in Southern California and award-winning actress, Betty White, is already wide awake and eager to go.
“I just got back from New York for a special Password [the game show that ran from 1961-1967; 1971-1975 and is scheduled to return in the near future] event, my late husband [Allen Ludden] was the MC, and now it’s Regis [Philbin]. It hasn’t gone on the air yet, but they flew me back ... it was great fun,” she laughs, sounding exactly the same as she did when she played character, Sue Ann Nivens, the ‘Happy Homemaker’ on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a role that garnered her two Emmys for best supporting actress.
“Allen would be so tickled that Regis is doing it, he does a very good job, and he’s good with people. I got back Saturday night and the time change is messing me up a little.”
But a trip to New York and a bit of jet lag is going to hold White down, no way. This is a woman who has done everything from TV to film to writing books to being an animal advocate.
“You’ve done so much, is there anything that you haven’t done?” I ask.
“Well, that’s just from being around so darn long,” she jokes. “I’m lucky to have good genes and be in good health.”
At 86, White who is perhaps best known for her roles in TV shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show (from 1970-1977) and The Golden Girls (from 1983-1991), as well as her life-long work for animal welfare is also an author. But besides those milestones, White is eager to talk about her latest project, another book she has co-authored with her long time friend, actor, speaker, singer and author, Tom Sullivan.
Due out in June, Together, (published by Thomas Nelson Publishing), is said to be a remarkable story of a young man who loses his sight in a mountain climbing accident and a black Labrador Retriever, Nelson, who struggles to find his place as a working guide dog. In the course of these pages, White and Sullivan provide the reader with insights into an astounding relationship between a blind man and his guide dog, whose essence is found in the deep bonding of love and trust. Readers learn how the dog thinks and interprets the needs of his blind master, and how the master grows in his awareness of the signals being sent by this remarkable animal. You come to love characters Brenden McCarthy and Nelson almost as much as they learn to love each other.
“It’s really Tom’s book and his idea, I just did a few chapters,” White says. “I also did some of the visuals, too. Tom is truly a very special person in my life.”
Adds Sullivan, who was later interviewed for this article, “I really wanted to write a book that gives full tribute to what these guide dogs do. A year and half ago, I came to Betty and asked her to write it with me. We really worked hard to make the reader understand from the dog’s point of view; it’s never been done before. We just happen to be two people that have been fortunate to have lived our lives so intimate with animals that we have been able to take the reader right inside to what the dog is thinking about. I am more proud of this book than I am the 10 other books, many bestsellers, that I have written.”
A Lifelong Friendship
White has been friends with Sullivan, 60, born blind, for more than 40 years. She is the person who actually discovered Sullivan; well, let’s back up a minute.
Really, if the truth be told, it was White, along with Ludden, who discovered Tom singing in a Cape Cod nightclub, and introduced him to his wife of 39 years, Patty.
When they first met, Sullivan and White immediately connected on many levels; their quick sense of humor; their appreciation for good books; their love of sports; and most important; their lifetime connection to animals. Together, they have shared the work of The Morris Animal Foundation, providing important health studies for dogs, cats, horses and wildlife. But even more personal and closer to their hearts was the relationship they enjoyed with Sullivan’s beautiful Golden Retriever and first guide dog, Dinah.
Their friendship also grew when White stepped in to take care of Sullivan’s best friend at that time.
For more than 10 years, Dinah, his guide dog, was Sullivan’s eyes on the world, but when those eyes faded and Dinah had to retire, it was White who shared the dog’s remaining years, and learned so much about what it was like to grow old from Dinah. In their book, Leading Lady, Dinah’s Story, (published by Bantam Books, 1991), White wrote, “Dinah taught Tom to grow up and taught me to grow old.”
Dinah had an incredible life thanks to White according to Sullivan.
“She took her everywhere … to The Golden Girls … all the jobs that she went on,” he says. “We wrote Leading Lady which became a best-seller, together and it was a book about Dinah in both of our lives. Betty has such amazing wisdom and she is so completely magical with animals.”
Sullivan Recalls First Meeting
In terms of their new venture, Together, Sullivan says, “If I know Betty, the first thing she said to you was ‘Tom is actually the one who wrote this book, I just helped …’”
He is quick to dismiss White’s claims that this was his project, but that she did a large part of the book and that she has been a part of his family for almost 40 years.
“If it wasn’t for Betty and Allen, I wouldn’t even be in this business,” he says. “Betty is truly someone special, who I think, should be honored with a Kennedy Center Honors. She has been involved in TV since the absolute beginning of TV and the fact that she had the first prime time NBC series is mind-boggling. It has never been more than six months since 1960 that she hasn’t been in a series.”
During the course of his own career, Sullivan has made such movies as those from his best-selling book, If You Could See What I Hear (1982), as well as appeared in a number of guest roles in shows such as Designing Women, Highway To Heaven, Fame, M.A.S.H, Mork & Mindy, and WKRP In Cincinnati.
To create the characters and fulfill the role of a blind man on these prime-time shows, he also helped write and develop many stories. He gained popularity on daytime TV as a regular on Search For Tomorrow, and was awarded the 1984 Governors Committee Award for his role. He has also been nominated twice for Emmy Awards, served as special correspondent on Good Morning America, as well as been an active motivational speaker, amongst many other amazing feats. In fact, Sullivan is an avid golfer and snow skier who doesn’t let his disability get the best of him.
“It’s funny, I am a Triathlete, but I don’t think that I could do all of the things that Betty does,” he laughs.
More Animal Endeavors
White also happily lends her celebrity to 1800PetMeds.com and as mentioned, she has been a board member with The Morris Animal Foundation for 39 years, as well as a trustee and former commissioner for the Los Angeles Zoo for close to 40 years.
“Animals are really a big part of my life; I can’t stress that enough,” she says. “I never had any desire for children and I’ve been an animal lover since I got out of the womb. “But, I did inherit three lovely step-kids when I married Allen, but really, my pets are part of the reason why I won’t go out of town for more than a day. I don’t like to leave them.”
A long time pet lover, she recently lost her Shih Tzu [Panda], of 16 years just last summer and then her Himalayan, Bob Cat, rescued by her hairdresser after an earthquake, and followed by losing her Golden Retriever Kitta. Today, Pontiac, a loveable Golden Retriever, is her only pet but she is planning for others soon.
And the trooper that she is, White doesn’t sit still for very long. She is about to start working on a new film with Sandra Bullock in April.
“The problem is that it is being shot in Boston and I can’t take Pontiac with me,” she says. “I kept turning it down, and then they finally made some concessions.”
“It will take six weeks to shoot, but they’ve made it so that I can come home three times over that period,” she says with glee. “That’s my life; I’m the luckiest old broad on two feet. My life is half animals and half showbiz – both the two things that I love; it doesn’t get any better than that …”
Still A TV Actress
But even working along the likes of Bullock, and with actor/comic, Steve Martin, and actress/singer, Queen Latifah, in the 2003 comedy Bringing Down the House, White still prefers TV and after five Emmy wins, it shows.
“It’s actually won six Emmy’s but who’s counting ...” she laughs. “I loved doing MTM -- it was such fun because Sue Ann was so rotten, and even though I only had a recurring role. On The Golden Girls as Rose Nylund, I was on every week with those silly girls.”
Of course, being the outgoing person she is, White still speaks on occasion with Moore and recalls her fondly.
“We talk every few months just to check in and of course, when there are reunions we see each other,” she says. “There is a big hole though since Ted Knight [who played Ted Baxter, one of the co-stars on the show] died, he was something else. You don’t get that kind of writing anymore in a TV show. In my opinion, actors can help a good show, but they can’t save a bad show or bad writing.”
Speaking of TV, White has seen many changes, and not just its technological advances!
“I started when TV was just beginning, in fact, I was doing experimental TV before it even went on,” she recalls. “The audience has changed so much; in those days it was this miracle in the corner of your room. There was actually a picture that was talking to you and that was in your house. Now, the audience knows every joke, they know every story and they are jaded. It is tough to reach that audience.”
But in the end it’s all about her relationship with animals, something truly near and dear to heart, as well as Sullivan’s.
“Betty has a connection with animals that is mystical,” Sullivan says. “I have seen her walk up to orangutans, tigers and elephants, and for some reason – it’s either in her eyes or in her tone – they relax. I have spent my entire life working with animals, but she has something magical that they can detect. It’s both incredible and unique to witness!”