betty white

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The episode was called “Password,” but it might as well have been “Aristophanes,” because never has the name of that ancient Greek playwright gotten such an uproarious laugh. Growled through Jack Klugman’s clenched teeth to a preternaturally annoying Tony Randall during what is explained as a special New York taping of Password, it’s perhaps the funniest moment in all 114 installments of The Odd Couple. I simply love it. The classic show was at its peak.

Curmudgeonly sportswriter Oscar Madison (Klugman) was never more Oscar-y than when he paired with his fussy roommate on the TV game show within the sitcom; persnickety photographer Felix Unger (Randall) never Unger-er than when he is giving absurdly erudite clues. He actually tries to get Oscar to guess “bird” from the hint “Aristophanes.” When that clue leaves his teammate clueless, Felix maintains, “Everybody knows Aristophanes wrote a play called The Birds.” “Everybody but me,” an exasperated Oscar grouses.

Given such sidesplitting absurdity, it’s no wonder that TV Guide once ranked the Dec. 1, 1972, installment at No. 5 on a list of TV’s all-time greatest episodes. The classic sitcom, in its fourth season, was part of what I like to remember as the greatest TV lineup in Baby Boom history: The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple, and Love, American Style, all on the same channel on Friday night. It was heaven.

It doesn’t hurt that this particular Odd Couple installment features three TV icons in supporting roles—Elinor Donahue of Father Knows Best as Felix’s girlfriend, Miriam; Al Molinaro, who’d go on to run his own diner on Happy Days, as the duo’s pal Murray the Cop; and Penny Marshall, the first half of Laverne & Shirley, as Myrna, Oscar’s forever-nasal secretary. When asked to pretend to be a celebrity contestant during an at-home practice round of Password, Marshall drips, “Can I be Peggy Cass?”

I howl every time.

The amazing thing, though, is seeing Allen Ludden and Betty White playing themselves on The Odd Couple—he, as the genial game show host; she, as the nearly impossible-to-beat celebrity contestant. In 1972 it was Ludden’s career that was on fire. White was known for appearing on game shows like, well, Password; as the host of the short-lived series The Pet Set; and as Ludden’s wife. When she did The Odd Couple, her first appearance as Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was still nine months away; her role as Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, more than a decade in the offing.

But White’s appearance on The Odd Couple was major, one that made Ray Richmond’s 2021 book, Betty White: 100 Remarkable Moments in an Extraordinary Life. “It’s unquestionably one of White’s finest moments,” he writes. “It’s uproariously good fun.” To consider the “Password” episode of The Odd Couple anything less than that would be, as Felix says, “Ridiculous!”

— Frank Decaro

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Actress and activist Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens, in a 1974 publicity portrait for the CBS comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

By Jim Colucci

New Year's Eve always marks a shift in time, often bittersweet. But for the television industry in particular, this past December 31 marked the end of an era, with the passing of one of the medium’s pioneers and longest-working stars, Betty White.

White’s fans around the world took to social media, not just to mourn, but to revel in the actress’s incredible 80-year career that lasted right up until her death, 17 days short of her 100th birthday. “The world looks different now,” Ryan Reynolds, White’s co-star in the 2009 film The Proposal, tweeted upon hearing the news. “She managed to grow very old and somehow, not old enough.”

Despite the icon’s advancing age, no one could ever envision a world without her—because actually almost no one alive can remember a time before Betty White. She was perhaps America’s most famous senior citizen, but ironically she predated the Social Security program by more than 13 years. And for the TV industry, White was there from the beginning, present and in focus when
they turned on the first, experimental TV cameras in Los Angeles in 1939.

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