It’s Friday afternoon and Durham’s Wesley Hyatt logs onto our Zoom interview wearing a sweatshirt. But it’s not just any sweatshirt, he tells me, standing up and gesturing to its text: “May All Your Christmas’s Be…” coupled with a picture of Betty White’s face.
Hyatt is a bonified Betty White fanatic and he’s recently authored a biography of the verging-oncentenarian actress: Betty White on TV: From Video Vanguard to Golden Girl.
The actress—often described as a “national treasure”—turns 99 on January 17. To mark the occasion, the INDY reached out to Hyatt, whose book on the White became available on Amazon last month. Hyatt, who describes himself as a “TV historian,” has previously written books on Bob Hope and Carol Burnett. In writing Betty White on TV, over the past year, he interviewed 30 people who had worked with the icon.
INDY: Hi, Wesley. If you were to describe Betty White to someone who had never heard of her before–say, an alien—what would you say?
Hyatt: Betty White exemplifies what’s best about human beings. She’s very witty, intelligent, funny, engaging—the type of person you’d like to be around during good times and bad. She’s inspirational and one of a kind.
What made you decide to write a book about Betty White?
I had written, other entertainment reference books before, and the last book I did was a book on Bob Hope’s TV career. When I was thinking about my next book, it just hit me when I was going over my previous books and some other ideas that, you know—Betty White has had an incredible TV career as well, why don’t you do a book about her? I looked to see what was out there and there really wasn’t that much, apart from what she wrote about herself, that was substantial.
It seems like the past decade she’s really had a moment—almost to the point of becoming a meme-ified!
It really hit for her when she did the Snickers commercial for the Super Bowl about 10 years ago, and then that followed with her getting the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. And then around the same time, a Facebook campaign to get her done Saturday Night Live, and that got a lot of attention. I talked with the guy who did that campaign and it was pretty funny —basically, as you thought might think, it came from being like a drunken time during the holiday season and putting out on the Internet, and then it mushroomed from there. It just shows how much love people have for her.
Is it unusual for entertainment figures to have this kind of late-in-life career renaissance?
Very unusual. I hate to say it—it’s sexist, but true for women performers, especially. She’s got an incredible work ethic. People love working with her—she’s friendly to all the cast and crew and makes everyone feel at home. Everything I’ve seen on television, everything she’s done, she’s given 100%.
How many hours of Betty White footage did you watch?
In the hundreds, at least. I was actually planning to go and watch some of the holdings they had at the Paley Center for Media in New York, but then they sent the listing of their entire holdings for Betty White. If you watched it, it would have taken you a full over a full week, nonstop, to watch how much they have of her. She did everything—she did parades and talk shows, game shows, and variety series. Dramas, comedies, you name it. The only thing she probably didn’t do were sci-fi and Western series. She did a World Wrestling Federation series one time.
When you’re not studying Betty White, what do you do?
My regular job is working as a marketing writer for IBM here in the Research Triangle Park.
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