Went to Betty White's New York Times TimesTalks Q&A last night with José and had a great time. TimesTalks are a lot of fun, and you can see them live on the Web or see truncated versions here after the fact. It's a small auditorium and the subject is paired with a Times moderator for about 45 minutes of back-and-forth before taking audience questions.
When I arrived, I bought her just-released memoir If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't) for $29 on the promise that she'd be signing it after. I couldn't believe she'd actually sign the 300 or so copies she must have sold after being grilled (and after having taped Letterman as well), but figured I'd risk it. The pages have gigantic borders and some of the chapters are a page and a half long, but it is her sixth tome so you gotta figure it's not going to be too in depth.
Too many of the questions—from Frank Bruni, of whom I am not a big fan considering his fawning George W. Bush book...Bush's name was left off of his introduction lest the audience boo him, I think—were focused on Hot in Cleveland and Saturday Night Live and the Comedy Central roast of William Shatner, but White's replies were witty and informative.
On the subject of Golden Girls, she candidly admitted that while she "loved and respected" Bea Arthur, "She wasn't that crazy about me!" Apparently, White's optimism got under Arthur's skin. "Bea would be mad that I was so happy," she explained.
She also said Estelle Getty had a phobia when it came to speaking about death (chew on that in the context of the show's many scenes involving death jokes, funerals and casket-shopping!), "Ruesy" was the Girl to whom she was probably closest and she couldn't remember filming many specific scenes.
Of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, White said she was offered a spot when they were looking for "a sickening Betty White type" and that Moore and her husband arrived the morning after the taping to personally invite her to be a recurring member of the cast.
Her favorite TV job ever was hosting The Pet Set in 1971 because it was devoted to animals and while she has been in some classic TV shows, she admits the secret to her long career has been in not being overly choosy and being grateful for steady work.
As much as Betty White Mania is probably grating to some of you, to watch her in action is to put all concerns of overexposure aside—she is just fucking funny and lovable.
Bruni quizzed her on death, teasing out that White professes no assumptions on what happens when we die. Her mother (who was best friends with Lucille Ball) used to say of people who've died, "Well, at least they know the secret now." And White said that while she's "happy as a lark" to be alive and keep entertaining people she doesn't fear death and would be "curious to know" that secret when the time comes.
For the Q&A period, you know I was first in line. I started by saying I thought I was speaking for everyone in saying she's a genius [applause] and then Bruni cut me off and said to get to the question because he would have to repeat it for her. She'd shown no signs of being hard of hearing, so it was a surprise. I responded with, "I get it, you're a control freak." People laughed and he took it well, so we'll call that one a point for both of us. But my question was who she considers a true genius, an overused word.
White said, without even thinking, "David E. Kelley!" and raved about his writing prowess. She must really adore him for her Ally McBeal and Lake Placid and Boston Public roles. She made a special point of thanking me and every other questioner after her replies.
Shockingly, the questions were all fantastic and her off-the-cuff replies gave great insight into her and were, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, such as when she was asked if she'd ever had any close calls with animals and admitted that despite all her work with dangerous creatures the only one to injure her had been a swan. As she began to tell the story of seeing some beautiful swans in the distance, the audience chuckled, seeing it coming, and she stopped and went, "Unh-huhhhhh," which brought down the house. Apparently, a male swan nearly snapped her leg when she got too close to the female and her nest. I think he must've been more of a Dorothy fan.
The Q&A ended with a touching and hilarious moment as a fragile, elderly man who IDed himself as, I think, Jimmy Sullivan, told White he'd worked with her a couple of times 25 years ago on Ellery Queen and something else and said, "I only heard you say a bad thing about one other actor and I wish I were in as good a shape at 90 as you are at 89." Then, when that Bruni was translating that to White, he went to ask the man for a clarification and he couldn't hear well either, so it was a comical situation. She had the perfect way to wrap it all up, which I hope will be viewable online.
Then we bolted downstairs to line up for her book-signing. I had to get over to see Kylie Minogue, so I was glad to be about tenth in line. The first two guys (who I knew, separately, and I also knew #3...small world of starfuckers, eh?) got personalized inscriptions and a chance to speak with White, but everyone else was rushed through with simple autographs and hastily snapped pic-withs taken by the woman who was with White.
I already have the world's best photos with White from when The Proposal premiered, so I didn't push too hard, but it was pretty annoying that the woman took the picture before White was even looking up, and that we were told to lean over this gigantic table. I said, "She wasn't ready!" and the woman chriped, "She was smiling!" and that was that. It's the world's worst pic-with, but hey, I'll take White's advice and focus on the positive:
White was sweet, thanking us for coming.
She really is a national treasure and inspiration.