Betty White perches on the edge of the couch in her dressing room, as if to take up as little space as possible, and calls you "dear." Then, she'll throw out one of the wicked one-liners she's been perfecting for decades, and you realize why a generation born after The Mary Tyler Moore Show campaigned for her to host Saturday Night Live. It's because we all want to be like her when we're her age (and maybe even before then). White, who turns 89 this month, is as soft and loving as any grandma but with the snarky wit of a college kid. She's Rose Nylund with brains, Sue Ann Nivens with a heart. Always funny on camera and off. Her portrayal of Hot in Cleveland's Elka Ostrovsky has earned her an unlikely nickname for an octogenarian: "The Hammer." Because she always nails her lines.
The role she's proudest of: "I can't say I'm proud. You always want to do it better. I think it's a toss up between Sue Ann and Rose. It's such a privilege when you get that kind of writing. You can't take credit for it. It's on the page. But also the fact that I got the chance to do two so completely different characters."
Is she more Rose or Sue Ann: Rose. "She wasn't dumb, but she was terminally naive. Rose was a cockeyed optimist who always saw the positive rather than the negative. She had a fierce Viking temper, but she was still a positive thinker."
How her husband, Allen Ludden, who passed away in 1981, used to describe her. "Well, Sue Ann the character can do anything. She can remodel. She can cook anything. And she's also the neighborhood nymphomaniac. Betty is the same character, except she can't cook."
What about Elka, her Hot in Cleveland character? "She keeps surprising me," White says with a laugh. "She's getting to be more a pain in the ass every week."
Her first real job: In 1949, White was hired to co-host the variety show Hollywood on Television with Al Jarvis. It ran five and a half hours a day, six days. What's more, it was live — and there was no script. "Al was a great one to work with. He'd throw something at me, and I'd try to be there to bat it back. It was like going to television college. You don't get that kind of experience today."
LA, baby: White was born in Illinois, but her family moved to California when she was just over a year old. "I don't think California was a state at the time," she quips. "I think it was a territory or undiscovered land."
A different city now: White grew up on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Back then, there was a stoplight at the end of her street. Now, there's a highway. "Los Angeles has changed completely," she says. "But when you see it through memory's eyes, you're not as conscious of those changes. You still see it the way you knew it."
1941: White joined the American Women's Voluntary Services, was given a uniform and assigned a job driving a PX truck of supplies up to the bivouacs in the Hollywood Hills. Then, at night, dances were held for the troops before they were shipped overseas. "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything," she says, "which I'm sure the young people are going through now. We'll never learn. We'll never learn."
Life lesson: "I had a wonderful couple of parents. I was an only child, and I'm sure I was spoiled, but if I didn't appreciate something, there was hell to pay. You knew what you had, and you appreciated it."
What White's mom said about aging: "She said, 'Be the age you are and appreciate it.' "
What White says about aging: "I feel the same as I did all those years ago. You know you're not, but you don't worry about it. I promise."
How does she do it all? "I've always had energy because I love what I'm doing. I'm the luckiest old broad on two feet."
Other source of energy: The huge, half-eaten jar of licorice in her dressing room. "I'm a bit of an addict," she says, laughing.