BY: JAKE COYLE
NEW YORK – What Betty White did in 2010 doesn’t usually happen: an 88-year-old actress with more than six decades in Hollywood suddenly became the object of adulation of the Facebook-connected masses, which campaigned for her to host “Saturday Night Live,” boosting the show’s ratings and helping her set ratings records for her own show.
After a year remarkable for a star of any age, White has been voted the Entertainer of the Year by members of The Associated Press.
“It’s ridiculous,” White says of the honor, in an interview from her home in Los Angeles. “They haven’t caught on to me, and I hope they never do.”
But more than acclaim, her unlikely, age-defying success resonated deeply with people who saw in her a spirited, hilarious aberration, a woman not dimmed by age but enhanced by it: The genuine article in a pop culture awash in imitators.
There were 102 ballots submitted from U.S. news organizations that make up the AP’s membership. Voters were asked to cast their ballots for who had the most influence on the entertainment world and culture in 2010. Previous winners include Taylor Swift, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert.
The final tally was close: White’s 20 votes beat the cast of “Glee,” Fox’s hit musical, by only two votes. Tied for third with 13 votes were Conan O’Brien, James Cameron and Apple’s iPad. Jon Stewart closely followed with a dozen votes.
White’s 2010 began with her acceptance in January of a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. Her speech, in which she thanked SAG “from the bottom of my bottom,” reminded many of her talent — showcased for years on “The Golden Girls” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — for a sharp comedy cloaked by warm charm.
Gesturing at presenter Sandra Bullock she asked, “Isn’t it heartening how far a girl as plain as she is can go?”
The appearance led to a fan-created Facebook campaign urging “SNL” to make her a guest host. After White’s award-winning Snickers Super Bowl ad, more than 500,000 were supporting her on the social networking site.
It wasn’t a new idea to the NBC sketch program, though. White says that she had turned down “SNL” three times before.
“I thought I was so Californian and it’s so New York-oriented that I would be like a fish out of water,” she says. “This time, my agent said, `No, you’ve got to do it.’ … But I was scared to death.”
“It was the insecurity, I think, that had me scared,” she says, noting that she can’t stand using cue cards, a necessity for a live show that’s revised until minutes before broadcast. A tip to focus on the cue cards instead of her fellow actors helped, but she still had to adjust. “I thought, `How do you not look at Tina Fey when you’re standing right next to her?'”
But the show came off incredibly. Airing on Mother’s Day weekend in May, most of the recent female “SNL” alum returned for the show, including Fey, Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch. White appeared in every sketch and the episode was watched by 12.1 million viewers, one of the show’s biggest audiences in years. The appearance also won White her seventh Emmy, for outstanding guest actress in a comedy series.
Will Forte, a longtime cast member who has since left the show, wasn’t alone in describing it as the best show he had ever done.
“Each week is not always super fun,” said Forte. “From every step of the way, (that week) was just a joy. There was this energy about her that was so wonderful.”
For those who didn’t know White, she was a breath of fresh air. For others, they were seeing her anew.
“She re-entered the hearts of all ages in 2010,” said Mark Vasche, editor and vice president of the Modesto Bee in California, “from parents and grandparents who watched her on `The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and `The Golden Girls,’ to their kids and grandkids who discovered her spunky octogenarian style in film and used the Internet to petition for her `Saturday Night Live’ appearance.”
All the feting has come as a surprise to White.
“It’s been phenomenal, but everybody keeps congratulating me on my resurgence and my big comeback,” she says. “I haven’t been away, guys. I’ve been working steadily for the last 63 years.”
The “It” Girls of 2010
So what changed?
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’ve had my own following all that time. If they want me to go away, if they get tired of me, just stop asking me because I keep saying, `Yes.'”
Though she had initially signed up for only the pilot to TV Land’s comedy “Hot in Cleveland,” she stuck around for its 10-episode first season and is currently filming its 20-episode second season. The show’s first episode set a record for TV Land with nearly 5 million viewers.
“How do you walk away from something that’s that much fun?” says White of the show, which also stars Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. “It’s the happiest set in the world.”
“My sales resistance is not very good,” says White. “I have the backbone of a jellyfish.”
The season debut on Jan. 19 will guest star White’s old friend, Moore. White has plenty else going on, too, including an upcoming Hallmark “Hall of Fame” movie, “The Lost Valentine,” and two books due out: “If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t)” and a photograph book of animals from the Los Angeles Zoo.
Animal welfare is an ardent passion for White, who is a trustee of the Morris Animal Foundation and a member of the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. During a recent interview, her golden retriever, Pontiac, could be heard in the background: “I like to think of him as the Indian chief, not the car,” she says.
Next month, White will return to the SAG Awards, where she’s nominated for best actress in a comedy series. “Hot in Cleveland” is also up for best comedy ensemble.
Says White: “It’s just been a lovely year, I must admit.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.