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tv   Tavis Smiley  PBS  May 13, 2011 12:00am-12:30am PDT

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tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. tonight, our conversation with television wasn't -- television legend betty white, less than a year shy of her 90th birthday. in addition to her role on "hot in cleveland," she has a new memoir called "if you ask me." our conversation with tv icon betty white, right now. >> all i know is his name is james, and he needs extra help with his reading. >> i'm james. >> yes. >> to everyone making a difference, you help us all live better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and answer, nationwide insurance is happy to help tavis improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one
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conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] captioned by the national captioning institute tavis: pleased and delighted to welcome betty white back to this program. the legendary television actress is a seven-time emmy-winning actress for her many roles, like "mary tyler moore" and "the golden girls." she has a new memoir on her life called "if you ask me (and of course you won't)." here is a scene from her latest series, "caught in cleveland."
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-- "hot in cleveland." >> so what are you, like, 100? >> are you that girl on that show? >> yes. are you a fan? >> no. when it was canceled, i said good riddance. but i do like the one with susan lucci. >> does anyone else smell pot? >> what are you, a cop? >> no. >> then what is it to you? tavis: you are just ripping off the one-liners. and we have a good time on that show. -- >> we have a good time on that show. tavis: tell me how you develop
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such great comedic timing? >> i was an only child, my mother and father, and there was not a straight man in the house, and i mean that in the nicest way. they were fun and we would laugh and a lot. my dad would bring home stories and jokes. he would say, and " sweetheart, you can take that to school. i would not take that to school." tavis: this started early at the home. >> yep. tavis: we were talking before we came on the air, and i said how much i like the title of the book. it is so betty white, "if you ask me (and of course you won't)," and you started to tell me how it came about. >> the publishers wanted to call it "listened up." that is not me, and i said i was not thrilled with the title. they said, " which went to
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college? i did not know of the top of my head. -- what would you want to call it? i did not know of the top of my head. i said, "if you ask me (and of course you won't)." and they said, that is it. tavis: and that is how the title came to be. you'd love animals. all of your fans know that you love animals. i get the feeling is so i was a dog or cat conducting this interview, you would be more comfortable. >> i would take you home. tavis: in that case, then, i am a dog. >> i love it. tavis: what is it like for animals living in the betty white house? >> i only have one, a 7-year-old golden retriever, as you can see from my black slacks. he is my buddy, my p. i was just on a book tour and i came home and he gets up on the couch with me, but that is not
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enough, he has to stretch across here, where i cannot get up if i have to. so it was very light, it had been a very busy trip. the next thing i know, he has me pinned down, and i'm trying to catch up on mail. before you know, we dozed off. in the morning i wake up and he was still there. tavis: how did you develop such a love for animals and what do you get out of that relationship? >> it is really my life. it has always been that way. my mother and dad were animal nuts as well. there is such a comfort, and they don't criticize and they certainly don't lie to you, and you cannot lie to them. you can lie to anybody else in the world, but you cannot lie to them. it does not matter if you go to the mailbox or bad, you get the
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same greeting when you comeback -- or bed, you get the same greeting when you come back. tavis: you are almost 90. >> i will be 90 in january. tavis: because you have been such a part of some of the iconic shows, it is hard to remember how you got started in this business. how did you end up in show business? >> i was just lucky. television was in new york, but it was not in los angeles yet. it had not moved out yet. when it did, there was a local station, channel 13, and i did a silly little song on the show. then there was a little group, a couple of comedians who had a sketch show that they did. a disc jockey saw me and he called me, said, i am starting a
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television show and i would like to be my girl friday. i said, oh, gee, another job. i was getting $5 per job for the others, i thought i was going to get another $5. he said, on hand. we will talk about it. well, it turned out it was 5.5 hours per day, six days per week, for years. that is like going to television college. no script, no nothing. you just went out and fought for your life, 5.5 hours, six days per week. he left and went over to abc two years after the show started. i inherited the show because i was there, but it was a wonderful experience. whatever happened happened on camera and you had to face it. tavis: what were the takeaways
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for you, being thrown in that way, being alive on the spot, in the moment, every day? >> you have no alternative. you have to say, i don't want to play this and walk offstage. you have to think when your feet. you just have to. but what i loved about television, it was this new medium, this miracle in the quarter of a room, and i felt so comfortable with the camera lens. you never talking to more than two or three people. if you are talking to an audience, a big audience in a theater or a movie audience, but with television, if there are more than two or three people in the room, they're talking to each other, they're not listening to you. that camera lens became sitting and like talking to you. that is what i loved about it. tavis: there is some much stuff in this book, and there are several things i found
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fascinating and funny. fascinating, you apparently love crossword puzzles. >> absolutely addicted. i carry them around my purse. i am stuck on the one, the car driving me here, about halfway through but i did not finish. i said i will finish on the way back. tavis: how did you develop a love for the crosswords? >> i don't know, i love words. i am not into numbers that much, and there are people looked on that, but crossword puzzles. if i get a puppy and a paper trained him, all of a sudden i would open the paper and would be a cross word, no, you cannot go on that. tavis: are you pretty good a crossword puzzles? >> i am not a wizard, but i do them so much, pretty soon you get into the pattern. i love them. tavis: i ask that in part because i am so fascinated,
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whenever i have met people who are blessed to arrive at your age and their mental acuity is as sharp as yours is, i always want to know what the trick is to being as short as you or when needed to be 90. is there a connection? >> i am not that sure, tavis, god knows, but i think ross proposals or mental -- i am not that sharp, tavis, god knows, but i think crossword puzzles keep you sharp. i cannot put it down until i get as far as i can go. i think it is like exercise. tavis: i read somewhere when you did the famous "saturday night live" appearance, for which she won the emmy award, everybody loved you on that, the campaign to get you to host, i read somewhere that the cue cards kind of scared you. >> that is why i had turned it down. i had turned down invitations to
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host of " saturday night live " three times early on. a first of all, i am so california, and they are so new york. but i memorize stuff or ad-lib. q cards? i hate that look when they're looking into camera and they are reading the cue cards and their eyes are guarding back-and- forth. they have a man on that show who should be seated. he said, betty, when you are talking to teaneck, don't look at tina. i will be here with the cue cards. keep your eyes on the cue cards and it don't look at tina, and she is doing the first -- she is doing the same thing behind you. a first of all, the want to stand that close? how can you do that? he was right, i was comfortable. you cannot memorize them. you have 40, 45 sketches and
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they keep changing. you have to do cue cards. i think that is the thing that panic to me. he took that away by just giving me that hint. tavis: how do you do it on your regular show? >> you memorize. tavis: used to memorize all this stuff? >> sure, that comes with the territory. it is like doing a play with an audience because they did so much back. but you have to memorize to play it. it is like doing a little mini play each time. tavis: as my grandmother would say, as you have become more chronologically gifted, has your process for learning airlines changed? -- learning your lines changed? >> i have always had a gift for memorizing things quickly. i just leave the script kind of
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open somewhere. as i walk by, i will look and go about my business. pretty soon, it sticks. i have these wonderful gals who work with me. valerie and jane. we have such fun and we are crazy about each other. but every once in awhile, in front of the live audience, there is this dead silence. you know that it is somebody's line. you think, is it mind? then somebody starts to be a goal and you know it is theirs. tavis: what do you make of the fact that you have been so fortunate, so blessed, you tell me, to be part of some of the iconic shows? there are people in this town who { 41 show. you have been on a multiple number of shows. -- our people in this town who hope for one show.
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you have been on multiple shows. >> i am so, lucky i say, but also blessed. at first, i am blessed with good health and energy. that helps. but the fact, one in a lifetime is a blessing. to get two big shows. but three? is that not abusing the privilege a little bit? i feel like i impressing my luck. and we are having such a wonderful time. and each of those groups, like mary tyler moore and i are still good friends. not the golden girls anymore, and i cannot still believe they are gone, because i was the oldest. i expected to be the first to bow out. now to have another whole group, were you cannot wait. we did our last show and we are on hiatus until september.
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i cannot wait to go back to work. tavis: since you have raised these shows by name, tell me what ever you want to tell me in retrospect about the mary tyler moore show? >> mary tyler moore was my first big hit. but mary and her then-husband were -- my beloved husband, they were best friends. they were the first people when alan and i started to go to gathered that he introduced me to. mary and i were great dear friends. the casting director one time, there was this happy homemaker character who could do anything, fix anything, " anything -- cook anything. chlorous liegeman -- chlorus
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character suspected there was something going on because her husband would come home with his clothing cleaner than when he went to work. this achingly sweet -- the sickeningly sweet that white type. they said why not get betty white? i guess that cannot find somebody sickeningly sweet enough. they called me and said, would you do the show, one shot? the nice thing was we did the show and jim byrnes and brooks who created the show, they came to me and said we had a couple of ideas for scripps. just hang in there, like to use you again. what a blessing. you can imagine how thrilling that was. tavis: and the rest, as they say, was history. >> the first year, i did not comment until the fourth year.
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by then it was a big hit. -- i did not comment until the fourth year. by then it was a big hit. we were sweating the ratings, would they get picked up or not. you cannot imagine that about the mary tyler moore show, but it was an uphill fight. tavis: you have thoughts about the way the television business has changed, back in the day? it would give shows an opportunity to grow and try to find their audience. everything today is about here and now. what do you make of the way business has changed? >> i think audience is the thing that changed. back in those days, you were still the miracle in the corner that people bragged about on the box. now the audience, they have heard every joke, they know every plot line, they know where you are going before you open your mouth. that is a hard audience to write for and surprise.
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actors will take credit for, yes, i did this and that. we cannot do it if it is not on those pages. it is the writers to make those shows work or not. tavis: does that mean that television may be a thing of the past at some point? >> i don't think so. i think there is something about that company and the corner, the articulate for people who live alone. they just automatically go in and turn the set on. i live alone, but i have a golden retriever. tavis: you mentioned how important the writing is to making the show. it hit me that the reason why a black man like me it's tickled to death every night to watch episodes back to back of "the golden girls" is i think the writing on that show, i am not the audience, but i love that show because the writing on it was so clever. >> it was. we cannot wait.
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we never received a script -- we would film on friday, but we could not see the script until monday. we cannot wait to do the table read monday morning and see what was going to happen. we did 180 shows, and that went on 180 weeks. we knew how privileged we were. it was not something that we realised afterwards and thought, gee, we did not know it at the time. that riding was spectacular. -- that writing was spectacular. and you taste every minute of it. tavis: what do you make of the fact that you are the oldest of "the golden girls" and the last living, and still working? >> oh, how blessed can you be? i love to work. people say, are you thinking about retiring?
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i make them to find the word, because i did not know the meaning of the word. why retire from something if you love it so much and enjoyed it so much and you are blessed with another group of people to work with like the gang on "hot in cleveland"? why would i think of retiring? but what i do with myself? tavis: we know you and we have been talking about the work you have done, but tell me about the stuff you have turned down in your career and how you make choices about what was right and what was not right for betty white. when i think of betty white, we know who betty white is. we get a sense of who you are now, but that is because you make choices along the way that allowed us to know who betty white is. tell me about the things you turned out over the years. >> i always turn down stuff about drugs, because i don't think there is anything funny or cute about drugs. i have seen it cost too much trouble with people.
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but at one point, the wanted all of us, "the golden girls," to come back and do a show where we were all on something. even "hot in cleveland," they come into her quarters and a sniff around. the war a little suspicious something was there. i said, please don't do that. i just got to play that game. god bless them, they took it out completely. but i won't do that. and then everyone -- there was one christmas show that became a big hit, and it started out with santa claus was drunk and vomiting on toys. it could be me, but at the bank that is particularly funny. -- but i don't think that is protected the lead funny. -- i don't think that is funny.
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and then jim brooks, one of the producers on "mary tyler mor ore," invited me to do a part in the jack nicholson show, "as good as it gets." there was one scene where he puts an adorable little bald down a laundry chute. the dog fell on the laundry and he was fine. i said, i cannot do that. because in real life, somebody will see that, and either a kid will think that is funny to do or somebody does not like the dog downhaul and it does not have -- downhaul and it does not have a happy ending. he said, the dog is the star of the show, he is fine. i said, that dog is fine, but not the dog that somebody copies. so i turned it down, and became the biggest hit in the world. but i did not regret turning it down. i just cannot do that. tavis: i appreciate the
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integrity. >> my answers get long, don't they? i just don't shut up. tavis: not at all. i would have the 14 three shows if i could. i have a friend, reverend garland taylor, and he says, tavis, lived as long as you want, just don't get old. he says that all the time. i raise that to ask you, what is the best thing -- we read all the time about the challenges of getting old, but as the best thing about getting older? >> you are spoiled rotten. everybody says, can i help you, what can i do. you will turn around, there is a chair behind you, you don't turn around. it is just there. they cannot treat you nicer. my blessing is i am blessed with good health. if i was not feeling good or if i did not have the energy, it is not that much fun. but this way, you get away with
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murder because i will be 90 in january. tavis: and we are happy that betty white will be 90 in january. she has a new book called "if you ask me (and of course you won't)." i love the title, the book, love betty white, and honored to have you back on this program. >> tavis, thank you so much, it is a joy. it is fun to talk to you. he did say one thing that i found surprising. you are black? [laughter] tavis: that is our show for tonight. thank you for watching. until next time, keep the faith. >> he was a soda jerk. now that think about it, he was the town jerk. every saturday afternoon, i would get a sunday. -- sundae.
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he would arrange the ice-cream scoops in an obscene way. [laughter] i could never prove it because by the time i would take it home to show my father -- [laughter] the evidence had melted. this day, every time i pass an ice-cream parlor or tackle shop, i blush. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. to me next time for my conversation with former pbs host bill moyers on his new book. that is next time. we will see you then. >> all i know is his name is james, and he needs extra help with his reading. >> i'm james.
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>> yes. >> to everyone making a difference, you help us all live better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] captioned by the national captioning institute
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