Despite being nearly 100 years old, it felt like Betty White was, somehow, going to live forever.
So when her death was announced on New Year’s Eve, it stunned everyone — including producers Steve Boettcher and Mike Trinklein. The duo, who knew Betty for more than a decade and are the minds behind PBS’ Pioneers of Television, were gearing up to celebrate the icon’s life and legacy on Jan. 17 with Fathom Events’ Betty White: 100 Years Young — A Birthday Celebration.
“We were just shell-shocked,” Boettcher says. “I think with her so close to 100 — it was just a gutshot for all of us.”
Set to release on the actress, producer and advocate’s 100th birthday, Boettcher and Trinklein — with guidance from Betty’s team — made the quick decision to continue as planned. Retitled as Betty White: A Celebration, the movie event — which features White’s final on-camera appearance — gets at the heart of why she had become such a beloved figure to so many through footage of the star behind-the-scenes on set, working with her office staff, entertaining at home and more.
“In one of the interviews, Betty talked about how she felt she was your favorite aunt that was kindly invited into your living room once a week, whether she was on Hot in Cleveland or The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Boettcher tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s different than a movie star, she always said, where you go to a movie theater, and you see them on a big screen, and they’re untouchable. In the living room, you’re an intimate family member.”
“Because of that privilege she had,” he says, “she always wanted to make herself approachable to her fans.”
Ahead of the movie’s theatrical release on Monday, which expanded from 900 to more than 1,500 theaters nationwide, Boettcher and Trinklein spoke to THR about how the original film came together, how White contributed to her own celebration, what fans can expect to see about the legend and how they ultimately pivoted to a tribute following her death.
How long had you both known Betty White, and how long had this film celebration been in the works?
Steve Boettcher: We work on a series for PBS called Pioneers of Television, where we’ve done about 300 interviews with stars. We interviewed her 15 years ago, and it was kind of the first interview we did with her. There was just something special about Betty — you could tell meeting her for the first time. So the film started then. We interviewed her intermittently every year or two. That first interview was before Hot in Cleveland, before Snickers [the 2010 comercial], before SNL. I think one of the last times was 2018. We didn’t realize this, but it just turned into a love letter to Betty and her fans.
Mike Trinklein: The last interview was 10 days before she died, right?
Boettcher: That’s true. Betty shot a tribute to her fans on Dec. 20, which will be in the film. It was her idea to do this. She said, “I want my fans to know this.” We’ve been asked to share it. We’ve been asked to put it on social media. The only place we thought was right was putting it in the film and sharing it with her friends, family and fans who are going to be there.
What was filming your final interview with her like?
Boettcher: It was Dec. 20, in her home. Betty loved getting glammed up, as she called it. The dress, the hair, the look — she just loved that. It’s probably about a minute or two long clip of just her looking directly in the camera as the graciously fun, warm Betty. She thanks all her fans over the years and for being out on the 17th to see the film. It’s just got that twinkle that’s Betty. The great thing about it is that she didn’t read it off the teleprompter or have a script. She ad-libbed it, and that’s Betty to the very end. She’s spontaneous and has the wherewithal to go with it and do it live. She was so good at that. You can’t watch it for the first time and help but get goosebumps when you hear her. It’s just very, very sweet.
Since you had worked with White for so long, did she collaborate with you on this at all?
Boettcher: She was not actively working on this project with us, but we consulted, we shared it, she greenlit it for us. One significant thing she did is that Betty gave us her list of who she thought would be perfect to be interviewed for this film; the people near and dear to her that she worked with and just had a special connection to. People like Ryan Reynolds, Valerie Bertinelli, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Carol Burnett, Georgia Engel. The list goes on. All these people were really close to Betty. We thought that instead of just doing people she met at an awards banquet one time, we’d find people who were close to her life.
Trinklein: Getting the interviews was key for us. From an industry point of view, it’s like, I want to hear from her agent. I want to hear from her first agent. Jeff Witjas is her agent now, but her agent before that is retired, older. He was there in the early days of Mary Tyler Moore. We interview her executive assistant. I wanted to hear from those people to give perspective about her career.
Boettcher: Everyone we asked to participate and be interviewed agreed. No one gave it a second thought. Everyone was very gracious — when they heard about the project and Betty’s support for the project, they quickly wanted to be a part of it.
With Pioneers of Television, you’ve had a lot of experience speaking to the legacy of icons, but this movie was initially meant as a celebration. How will it be different than your other work?
Trinklein: Unlike our other work, in which we generally have narration tying things together, this thing is purely in the voice of the people who were either Betty or her close friends. We had these extended interviews with Betty. No one has more of Betty talking about her full life or career than we do with these multiple interviews. So it’s really in her words, largely. She tells the stories herself. It’s not like us putting a spin on it. It’s just Betty telling you about her life, career, loves, and passions. And we, of course, visualize those things, but that’s what makes our thing, I think, really different. It’s not just some outsider telling the story. It’s Betty and her close friends telling the story.
Boettcher: I think what also made it harder for us: Betty never stopped working. So we had to keep going back to do more and more interviews. We just had to keep hunting her down. It was like, has Betty stopped? No, she’s working again. (Laughs.) SNL wrapped, and she was the last one leaving the cast party. She got on a plane on Sunday morning and started Hot in Cleveland on Monday. She’s 88 years old at that point. Just incredible.
Beyond her legacy on TV, Betty White was known for her dedication to causes. Will the film explore elements of her advocacy work?
Trinklein: I think that’s exactly the word Betty would have used. Advocate. She never liked the word activist, but she always wanted to use the word advocate, whether for her animal causes or civil rights causes. The thread that runs through them is she wasn’t the kind of person who stood on a soapbox and made a speech. She just lived it without trying to make a big deal of how wonderful she was. So she hired the first woman director on television. She was the first woman to produce a TV show. She had a sitcom that she started and produced before I Love Lucy. Of course, there’s the great story of Arthur Duncan, an African American singer on her show, which ties in with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day release. Stations in the south said you have to get rid of him, and she stood up for him and said, I’m not going to do that. But she didn’t go, “I have a press conference.” She just did it. She said this is the way it is, and that was her style.
Boettcher: What was fascinating was Arthur Duncan never knew that even happened. Betty never shared it with him, never shared that she fought for him. He didn’t learn about it until three or four decades later. Betty just did it quietly and never took credit for it.
The movie features material from a lost episode from an early sitcom White starred in. How did you come by that?
Boettcher: It’s a show called Date with the Angels. It’s really young Betty. You could just see her candle already. It’s fun to see Betty early on in her career. We found the episode and kind of remastered it, cleaned it up, re-did audio — all that stuff.
Trinklein: There are lots of clips of Betty’s early career, not just that one episode. People think of Betty starting out with the Golden Girls or maybe Mary Tyler Moore but didn’t realize she had a full, giant career even before that. I mean, she was basically The Today Show host of her era. She was on the air all the time — talk shows, game shows. She was the first woman ever to be the host of a game show, and she did all these talk shows back to Jack Paar. [In the movie], you see her talk about, “Oh, I was on Jack Paar,” and then we see her on Jack Paar. And the reason she did all the game shows and all the talk shows is because she was coveted. She was smart. She was a whip. She could talk very quickly on any topic very extemporaneously. Not all celebrities can do that.
As people who had worked with Betty so closely for so long, are there any parts of this film that resonate with you the most?
Boettcher: I think maybe some of the quiet, intimate personal moments at home or — she took her fan mail so serious. Signing, writing letters, sending pictures. We have scenes of her doing that. Just how genuine she was — I think that’s something that you’ll see in the film. It just goes beyond humor. And there’s her love of animals. We have scenes with her with some exotic animals and that connection she had to all animals.
Trinklein: I also think it’s worth noting we have shots of her in her dramatic roles. People don’t think of her as being a dramatic actor, but in the very few roles she did, she was really powerful. You really see a wide range of what she could do.
The original plan was to have this film be a 100th birthday celebration. How did you have to adjust the film in light of her passing?
Boettcher: The film was already done and distributed to theaters, and we pulled it back. The first thing we did was sit down and talk with our team and Betty’s team — should we just cancel? Betty’s team pushed us on, like, “No, she would want this. Go forward. Go with this.” So that was the big decision that had been made that weekend. Then on Monday, we just started reshaping the film to reflect the news that had happened. But we still kept that tone of celebration and everything Betty would want to do with it. We also retitled the film.
The original beginning of the film was A-list stars wishing Betty a happy birthday and jointly singing “Happy Birthday.” We had to scrap all the A-list stars. It was like a five to seven-minute-long sequence. We had interview clips that we put in there that we had done that was, “Someday Betty will pass. What are your thoughts when that happens?” Then Betty’s important message to her fans is what the film starts with. That was the crowning jewel at the beginning of the film.
This may be Betty White’s final word. How does it feel to take that on with this film?
Boettcher: We humbly sit in this seat of privilege to be able to do this project and have the breadth of the majority of her career, really, that she’s given us and shared with us. I think the film radiates Betty’s heart, humor, and happiness. You can’t help but smile when you hear her name or see her on-screen. As we all know, Betty’s kind of a rascal, a troublemaker. I remember going places with her filming, and she would always say, “Oh, here’s Steven and Mike. They’ve been embedded with me for the last 10 years.” Then she would wink-wink. It was always her way of being playful and fun, and I think the film reflects that.
Trinklein: On one hand, I want to say we’re not the final word because the final word plays out every single day when you can enjoy her work on various television shows. At the same time, it is sort of the final encapsulation that she participated in. As Steve mentioned, she was part of the process for a long time, so it is a lot of responsibility. But I think we handle that. Yes, there’s a tribute at the beginning, and everyone takes that somber moment to reflect, but then we kick back into what Betty would have wanted, which is the fun and joy and spontaneity of her life. I feel really good. This is a celebration of what she really was about.
Betty White: A Celebration will release in theaters and play three showtimes (1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.) across the U.S. for one-day only on Monday, Jan. 17.