Born: January 17, 1922.

Died: December 31, 2021.

BETTY White, who has died aged 99, was an actress, comedian and producer, who had the longest career of any woman in the American entertainment industry.

She was best known to audiences worldwide for her performances as Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls, but was a well-known face to American audiences from the 1950s.

Ms White worked steadily throughout her career, which spanned more than 70 years, and combined her work with animal rights advocacy.

After The Golden Girls folded in 1992, she remained in regular employment, guest-starring in numerous shows, and in her later years, acquired the status of American national treasure, hosting the edgy comedy show Saturday Night Live in 2010 aged 88, after a Facebook campaign to bring her in as host garnered more than half a million backers. She confessed that she was “scared to death” of the prospect, but her appearance was well received and showed that age had not impaired her sharp delivery or comic timing. It won her her seventh out of eight Emmys.

She achieved Emmy nominations over a 60-year period, longer than any other actor in history.

Betty Marion White Ludden was born in Illinois, but her executive father Horace White and her mother Christine, moved with her to California during the Great Depression, finally settling in Los Angeles. White’s passion for animals began in the 1930s when Horace started taking in strays. Horace, who built radios to bring in extra income, often exchanged the radios for dogs.

After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, Ms White had wanted to be a forest ranger, but the profession did not accept women so she turned to her love of writing, appearing first on radio and then on TV.

Her break came in 1949 (after she had served during the war as a member of the American Women's Voluntary Services) when she started appearing as co-host of a live local TV variety show hosted by DJ Al Jarvis, Hollywood on Screen.

She and Jarvis were on air for five and a half hours a day, six days a week, without guests, talking and singing. There was no script. After four years she became sole host, the first time a women had hosted a talk show alone. She subsequently formed her own production company, Bandy Productions, with two male associates, developing ideas for shows.

She was one of the first actresses to control her own projects in this way. Bandy created Life With Elizabeth, in which she played one half of a suburban couple, a show which started on LA local TV before being syndicated nationally.

In the 1950s, she was a regular on game-shows, sitcoms and variety shows, and starred in the first of three versions of The Betty White Show. Her cheerful witty persona appealed to the masses and she was voted the female personality that viewers would most like to invite into their homes.

Ms White had had two brief marriages in her early 20s, to Dick Barker, a military pilot, and Lane Allen, an agent, but did not marry again until she was 41, when she wed Allen Ludden, a TV host whose panel show she had guested on. The marriage was, in Ms White’s words, “the happiest one” and lasted until Ludden died in 1981 of stomach cancer. Ms White never remarried.

By the time she was 50, Betty White had already had a successful career, but the best was yet to come. She won worldwide fame for roles in two highly acclaimed shows in the 1970s and 80s, which, unusually for the era, were led by women and revolved around strong female characters.

The hugely successful office-based sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which had 43 million viewers by 1974, turned White’s smiley persona on its head. The character of Sue Ann Nivens, whom White played from 1973 until 1977, was a colleague of Moore’s on the fictional WJM TV station in Minneapolis and hosted a show called The Happy Homemaker. Sue Ann’s ingratiating permasmile and demure manner masked a catty nature and rampant nymphomania, giving White the opportunity to show off her prodigious talents as a comedienne. The role netted her two Emmys.

The following decade she co-starred with Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan in The Golden Girls, about three widows and a divorcee living together in a Miami house. Ms White played the innocent Norwegian-American Rose, who is forever telling folksy stories about her unsophisticated Nebraska upbringing. The eldest member of the cast, Ms White outlived the others.

After continuing to appear regularly on television in the 1990s and Noughties and in films such as Lake Placid (1999) and The Proposal (2009), she found a new regular role aged 82 as Elka Ostrovsky in the sitcom Hot in Cleveland, which ran for five years and won her a Screen Actors Guild Award, and from 2012-14 hosted Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, a show about the older generation playing pranks on young people. She continued to make guest appearances on screen well into her nineties.

White often commented that she loved any creature “with a leg at each corner”. She was a long-time trustee of the Morris Animal Foundation, which researches animal health problems, and a committed supporter of Los Angeles Zoo, becoming its chairperson in 2010.

As well as her eight Emmys and her Screen Actors Guild award, Betty White won a Grammy (for a spoken word CD) and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

She is survived by her stepchildren and her pets.