Tributes to Betty White, who died on Friday at age 99, have focused on her acting career on such shows as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Golden Girls,” her remarkable longevity as one of the pioneers of early television, and her renaissance as America’s most popular nonagenarian.
In addition to all these elements, Betty White also loved to play games — in a good way. She appeared on hundreds of game show episodes, and became the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host, for hosting the short-lived show “Just Men!” in 1983.
If Alex Trebek, who died at the end of 2020, represented the last great game show host —beginning his career when game shows predominated, and hosts emceed multiple shows over their careers — White served as perhaps the greatest game show panelist, hearkening back to an era where Hollywood personalities drove game shows. Little wonder, then, that she earned the moniker the “First Lady of Game Shows.”
Celebrity Panel Games
When White began her game show career in the 1950s, panel shows were all the rage — a trend that continued into the 1970s. Shows used a series of celebrities to guess an individual’s occupation (“What’s My Line?” and “I’ve Got a Secret”), or pick the correct individual from a group of imposters (“To Tell the Truth”).
White appeared on these three shows, along with many others. She worked on “Tattletales,” which featured celebrity couples gossiping about their private lives. She also appeared on two of the most popular game shows of the 1970s — “Hollywood Squares” and the “Match Game” — and “The $25,000 Pyramid” in the 1980s.
During this era, some celebrities could build a career out of working on game shows. Individuals like Arlene Francis (“What’s My Line?”) and Charles Nelson Reilly (“Match Game”) became more known for appearing on these shows than their prior careers. Richard Dawson, formerly of “Hogan’s Heroes” fame, parlayed his work on the “Match Game” to a second career hosting “Family Feud” in the 1970s and 1980s.
‘Password’ to Her Heart
White used her love of game shows in another way, eventually winning a love of the human variety. Whereas I met my sister through my appearance on “Jeopardy!,” White met her last husband, Allen Ludden, via their work on “Password.” White served as a panelist during the show’s first season, in 1961, and the two married in 1963.
Ludden, the host of “Password,” famously courted White, who turned down his first two proposals until accepting the third. But while White might have seemed a reluctant bride, her love for Ludden endured. Asked why she never remarried in the four decades following Ludden’s death in 1981, she usually responded with a rhetorical question: “Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?”
White served as a panelist on all four versions of “Password,” appearing with the four hosts who succeeded Ludden following the latter’s death. Her work opposite host Regis Philbin on “Million Dollar Password” in 2008 — at the age of 86 — struck a chord for its heartwarming nature, even as White demurred that she was too old for the type of drama the show entailed.
When asked on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” what she would want God to say to her if and when she made it to heaven, White responded: “Hello Betty. Here’s Allen.”
Here’s hoping the Queen of Game Shows soon gets her wish, and reunites with her co-star. Requiescat in pace.