Betty White, Naughty and Nice

By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

Betty White must have a secret.

The actress is 87, an age when most people usually start pumping the brakes on life. Yet here she is, America's Senior Sweetheart, a bundle of twinkly-eyed, grandmotherly energy who still appears in movies, advocates for animal health, cracks jokes on late-night talk shows, drops F-bombs in viral Web videos and loves every single, hectic minute of her jampacked days.

So what does this irrepressible woman know about staying vital that we don't? Betty White, are you eating something the rest of us should be?

"French fries. Hamburgers. Hot dogs," she confesses during a recent telephone interview to promote her new comedy, "The Proposal," co-starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. "I'm not a health nut. I weigh every morning, and if I put on a pound, tomorrow I just take that pound off by cutting something I indulged in the day before. My weight has stayed the same for decades."

"I really don't get tired," the former "Golden Girl" says. "I am enjoying life very much at this point. I'm so lucky. Don't think I take it for granted."

Actually, it's impossible to believe White takes anything for granted. During the course of a 20-minute conversation, the multiple Emmy Award winner uses "lucky" five times to describe herself and gushes about what she calls her "marvelous" experience working on "The Proposal," a romantic comedy in which she assumes a role that suits her perfectly: doting, lovable grandmother. Seriously, toward the end of a conversation with this relentlessly upbeat woman -- a lady who punctuates some sentences by calling a reporter "dear" -- one is sorely tempted to ask, "Won't you be my Nana?"

In the movie, White plays Grandma Annie, a chipper, New Age-y seamstress so eager to see her grandson (Reynolds) get married that she alters her wedding gown to fit his faux bride-to-be. (Yes, that's faux bride-to-be. The rom-com's plot forces Bullock and Reynolds to pose as fiances so she won't get deported to Canada. If you suspect that hilarious high jinks and possibly genuine romantic feelings will follow, all we can say is: Bingo.)

Even if White is all warm and fuzzy in this onscreen venture, anyone who has seen her foul-mouthed turn in the thriller "Lake Placid" or her regular wacky appearances on "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" (including one last year in which she called Sarah Palin a "crazy [female dog]") knows White's other side, the one that's wickedly naughty.

That mischievous alter ego is also on view on the humor Web site Funny or Die via a video that claims to capture a "real" argument on the "Proposal" set. Because of the content (Bullock, White and Reynolds blurt out a series of bleeped profanities and, at one point, White flips Reynolds the bird), the actress initially resisted doing it.

"[The studio] sent me the script, and my little speeches were, every second word was the F-word," she remembers. "And I said, 'I don't want to do that. What does that have to do with our nice little romantic comedy?' "

But she relented. Even though she thinks the bawdy Betty routine has gotten a little stale ("David E. Kelley started it with 'Lake Placid,' and pretty soon it got to be kind of cliche," she says), the sitcom veteran is savvy enough to get the joke. Which also may explain why, during her recent "Proposal" late-night talk show tour, she played beer pong on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and told Ferguson she once slept with all of the Marx Brothers.

Even after the "Proposal" promotional hubbub dies down, the Beverly Hills High School graduate doesn't plan to sit still. She starts shooting another Disney comedy, "You Again," with Sigourney Weaver and Kristen Bell, later this summer. She will attend plenty of meetings related to her work with the Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to animal health and welfare, and the Los Angeles Zoo. And then there are those fan-mail responsibilities that still come courtesy of her two most memorable roles: the saucy Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the breathtakingly dim Rose Nylund on "The Golden Girls."

White has only fond memories of her "Golden" years.

"You can't work as long as we did together and as happily as we did together in a quality show, and not become family," she says.

After 61 years in the entertainment industry, White accepts both the joy and the pain her profession brings. What she seemingly can't comprehend is the notion that many of her peers now consider her a legend.

When a reporter mentions that dreaded L-word, White humbly dismisses it: "When you've been around as long as I have, you don't think of yourself in terms of [that]."

She is much more comfortable using that other L-word, the one she returns to repeatedly to express how immensely grateful she continues to work in Hollywood: "I'm the luckiest old broad on two feet."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company