It was a delicious comic recipe. “The character was described in the script as being a man-eating b-tch who laid out her victims with the sweetness of a Betty White,” Mary Tyler Moore recalled about the role of Sue Ann Nivens. The producers “had read every actress they could think of,” Mary said. “I asked why they hadn’t seen Betty White herself.”
There was only one problem. Mary and Betty had a close friendship — they had both wed their respective husbands, Grant Tinker and Allen Ludden, by the same judge, and the couples often double-dated. The showrunners were worried it might be awkward if Betty blew the audition to play The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Happy Homemaker. “If she’s awful, don’t use her,” Mary said.
Of course, she wasn’t awful. In fact, Betty was so good, the character of Sue Ann went from a one-shot guest spot to a beloved member of Minneapolis’ WJM-TV family. The sitcom was already in its fourth season — Betty sent over arrangements to Mary in the shape of numbers to mark the beginning of each — and Valerie Harper had spun off to her own series, Rhoda. Sue Ann gave the show just the spice it needed.
But first, Mary had to bust her chum’s chops. Betty called Mary right after she was cast in the role and Mary pretended to object: “Oh, no you don’t. I may not butt into the show often, but I do have veto power!”
After Betty filmed her first episode and producers told her they were already working on another script featuring Sue Ann, she knew she could be settling in for a long run. “The next morning, Saturday, the doorbell rang around 11,” Betty remembers. “When I opened the door, there were Mary and Grant, grinning and holding some beautiful flowers” in a souflé dish that had been used on the show. “They had come by to say how happy they were that rotten Sue Ann would be coming back,” Betty continues. “The four of us had a very impromptu — and very festive — brunch.”
The relationship between Mary’s character — local news producer Mary Richards — and fellow WJM employee Sue Ann was almost as warm, and Betty credited Mary with making Sue Ann’s addition to the show so successful. “No matter how funny the part is, if a guest character is someone the lead character doesn’t like, the audience can often get protective and not respond well to the newcomer,” Betty says. “It was thanks to Mary’s choice as an actress that Sue Ann worked. Rather than disliking her, Mary Richards found Sue Ann laughable, so the audience could relax and laugh with her.”
And so they did for the sitcom’s final three seasons. “The producers got to know the actress a bit, so they recognized she was bawdier than some may have realized,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong wrote of Betty in the 2013 book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. “They knew she could pull off the role.”
They also knew she could push the envelope, as the Happy Homemaker — a nod to Xaviera Hollander’s scandalous 1972 best-seller The Happy Hooker — seduced Lars, the husband of Mary’s landlady Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman), as well as Mary’s crusty newsroom boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner). After their one-night stand, Sue Ann brought Lou back his socks. Washed and folded, naturally.
“Mary, I was lying in bed last night, and I couldn’t sleep, and I got the most wonderful idea,” Sue Ann said in one episode. “So I went right home and wrote it down.”
Betty loved playing such a sexually liberated woman. “She’s not only a b-tch but a nympho,” she told Los Angeles Times TV critic Cecil Smith in 1973. “She can’t keep her hands off any man, not even Ted [Baxter, the dim-witted anchorman played by Ted Knight]. I’ve been waiting all my life for a part like this.”
Audiences and critics ate up Betty’s shtick. “As Sue Ann, she invented her own brilliant combination of manic and passive-aggressive, with a little bit of delusion thrown in,” Armstrong wrote. “She gave a transcendent performance that prompted viewers to ask: Where has this version of Betty White been, and how can we get more of her?”
Among Sue Ann’s funniest bits were her frequent barbed exchanges with news writer Murray Slaughter, played by Gavin MacLeod. “Sue Ann, you’d have time to chase men if you were being embalmed in an hour,” he once cracked. She invariably retaliated with a cutting quip about Murray’s balding head.
But off-screen, Betty and Gavin became close pals. “Gavin MacLeod was solid-gold support,” Betty says. “After the show went off the air, I was delighted to see him be the first to hit it big as Captain Stubing on The Love Boat. He had paid his dues.” Betty took multiple cruises as a guest star on his show.
Sue Ann was a potentially unsympathetic character — she once hosted an episode of The Happy Homemaker titled “What’s All This Fuss About Famine?” But Betty dug beneath her hard surface and revealed the desperately lonely woman inside, and Emmy voters took notice. Betty won back-to-back Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series awards in 1975 and 1976.
In her second acceptance speech, she thanked the “evil, adorable, wonderful, nasty people at Mary Tyler Moore Show who make Sue Ann the rotten lady that she is.”
She had previously been nominated for an Emmy for her sitcom Life With Elizabeth. “It had been 22 years since the first one,” Betty says of her statuettes. “And now she had a friend.”
Betty and her Mary Tyler Moore chums had a hard time getting through the show’s 1977 finale, which ended with a group hug and an impromptu rendition of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” “When the last week arrived and we gathered, as always, on Monday morning, the atmosphere was so tangible, you could almost see it in the air,” Betty says. “By showtime, however, we had ourselves pretty well in hand. We even made it to the final scene with ying colors. It wasn’t until Ed, as Lou Grant, said, ‘I treasure you people!’ that everything went to hell in a handbasket.”
The cast and crew pulled themselves together and managed to smile through their tears. “We knew we would all still see each other,” Betty says. “But something very precious would never be again.”
Still, Sue Ann’s wisecracks remain fresh 40 years later. Consider one of her sign-offs: “And so, until tomorrow, this is your Happy Homemaker reminding you that a woman who does a good job in the kitchen is sure to reap her rewards in other parts of the house.” And that’s why we loved Betty as Sue Ann: She brought happiness into our homes.
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