It’s fitting that the theme song for Betty White’s hit sitcom The Golden Girls was “Thank You for Being a Friend.” Betty has had a lot of close friends over her 95 years, but one dearest to her was another TV legend: Lucille Ball. “We were buddies,” Betty says. “She was always going to teach me backgammon. So we’d get together and she’d have it all set up. But her idea of teaching was, ‘I’ll take my turn. Now you throw the dice,’ which I would. And then she’d move my pieces here and here, and I’d say, ‘Lucy, how am I going to learn if you’re playing the game with yourself?!’ But we did it a lot and had fun.”
While Lucy was 11 years older than Betty when they met around 1957, the two women found they had a lot in common, and their connection blossomed into a 30-plus-year friendship. Both had worked in radio before graduating to television. Both had their own production companies — a groundbreaking move for women in 1950s Hollywood. And both had the support of strong, devoted mothers. After Lucy’s 1961 marriage to comedian Gary Morton and Betty’s 1963 nuptials to Password host Allen Ludden, the couples grew close. “Lucy and Betty’s relationship spanned more than just being show business acquaintances,” a pal of the pair tells Closer. “They considered each other family.”
Betty first got to know Lucy while working on the 1957 sitcom Date With the Angels, about a young married couple. It taped at Desilu Studios, where Lucy was wrapping up the final season of I Love Lucy. “Betty was still trying to get a foothold in show business when she met Lucy,” the pal explains. But Betty wasn’t a complete newcomer, having already starred in the 1952 until 1955 comedy Life With Elizabeth, produced by her own company, Bandy Productions.
“Their bond was their common accomplishment as business women in a male-dominated industry,” Ann Dusenberry, who appeared on Super Password with Betty and Lucy and co-starred in the 1986 series Life With Lucy, tells Closer. “Betty really looked up to Lucy,” another friend says, “and Lucy saw that she and Betty were cut from the same cloth.” Lucy was well-suited to become Betty’s mentor. I Love Lucy had been on the air since 1951, and a No. 1 hit for four of its six seasons. It was produced by Desilu, her company with husband Desi Arnaz. “Lucy took Betty under her wing,” the pal notes. “She was already the biggest female star on TV, and in many ways, she paved the way for Betty’s achievements.” The friend adds Lucy also “admired Betty’s spirit in tackling the male-dominated TV business of the 1950s.”
Adversity strengthened their bond. By 1959, Lucy’s 19-year marriage to Desi had begun to disintegrate due to his drinking and philandering “I think it came to a point where Lucy was not able to emotionally handle working together,” says Keith Thibodeaux, who played little Ricky on I Love Lucy. Her 1960 divorce marked a turning point in Lucy’s life, and Betty had the experience to offer her friend words of encouragement because she had been divorced twice before. “Lucy saw Betty’s fighting spirit — they were really feminists of their time, when that wasn’t necessarily the norm in Hollywood,” says the friend. Lucy forged ahead, marrying comedian Gary Morton in 1961 and taking over the reins of Desilu. During hard times, Lucy and Betty also relied on each other’s families. As the pal points out, “Betty adored not only Lucy’s sense of humor, but her mother and Lucy’s children,” Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. (Betty didn’t have children, but after marrying Allen she helped raise his three kids from a previous marriage.)
A friendship also blossomed between “our two dynamite mothers, DeDe Ball and Tess White,” says Betty, who was an only child and close to both parents, whom she’s called “the best ever invented.” Lucy had been raised by DeDe and other relatives after her father died of typhoid when Lucy was there. A lot of the women’s strength “came from their mothers,” says the pal. DeDe, a former concert pianist, and Tess, a homemaker, taught their daughters how to stand up for themselves. “They were definitely mama’s girls,” notes the pal, “raised by women who told them they didn’t have to take a back seat to any man.”
But they did rely on their female friends. When Lucy’s mother was ailing, Betty recalls being at a party “and [Lucy] dragged me aside and said, ‘What the hell am I going to do if I lose my mother?’” DeDe died not long after, in 1977, and “she sort of took my mom over,” Betty shares. “Every year on DeDe’s birthday, she would send my mom a basket of violets. [She was] some kind of a lady.” Lucy stood by her friend a few years later when Betty’s husband, Allen, died of stomach cancer. “She was there with a meal and kind words when Betty needed it most,” says their pal. As one of “the friends who set about putting the pieces back together,” Betty says, Lucy “was convinced the sure cure for anything was backgammon. She made me laugh in spite of myself.”
Of course, as women of comedy, laughter was a key ingredient in their connection. “They were powerfully funny and ready and willing to be playful, even foolish, if there was a joke in it,” says Dusenberry. Their hilarity was on full display in the 1980s, when they squared off on game shows like Password and Super Password, where “they fought, teased, spatted and growled as only two giants of theater can do,” says former host Tom Kennedy. But he notes that in their mock competition, “The two women failed to mask their actual admiration.”
It was while taping a 1986 episode of Password that Lucy learned Desi had died, and Betty was able to give her buddy a shoulder to cry on. “Lucy was being real funny on the show, but during a break she said, ‘You know, it’s the damnedest thing. I didn’t think I’d get this upset,’” Betty recalls. “It was a funny feeling, kind of a lovely, private moment.”
Their bond continued until Lucy’s death at 77 in 1989 from an aortic rupture. Says the pal: “Betty has a scrapbook of photos with Lucy and people who are close to her heart.” Remembers Betty, “We had such fun!”
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