By Bill Brioux
…the password was “Smitten.”
That’s how it seemed, at least, when Betty White met Allen Ludden.
Now 96, White was recently saluted as the “First Lady of Television” on a PBS documentary special (available for streaming this month at PBS.org). The beloved “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Golden Girls” star met her future husband Allen Ludden when she guested on “Password” in 1961. The popular daytime game show had many incarnations, but it was Ludden’s long tenure as host most boomers remember.
Even though those early “Password” clips are in black and white, you can almost see White blush on her early appearances with Ludden. “I actually think the audience saw the sparks before they saw the sparks,” says Steve Boettcher, the producer and co-director of the documentary.
“Password” involved celebrity panelists giving clues to participants in hopes they would win money by guessing the secret word. Frequent guest White was among the best clue-givers at the game.
On one episode, as the series was wrapping up for the season, Ludden leaned in and asked White if she had anything planned for the summer.
White briefly stammered and then teased with, “What did you have in mind?”
“I think that was the moment that started cementing their relationship,” says Boettcher. As White put it, ”There just was a warmth and a rapport … we dug each other a lot.”
The two popular TV personalities had both been married before but were single when they met. Ludden’s first wife, Margaret, with whom he had three children, died of cancer in 1961. White had two brief marriages, each ending in divorce.
Ludden proposed to White several times. ”One night,” she says in the documentary, “we went to dinner and he gave me a jewelry box and I opened it and there’s a lovely wedding ring with diamonds all around.” Ludden told her to put it on because she was going to say yes eventually; White got mad and told him to get lost. “I live in LA there was no way I was going to move to New York,” she vowed.
Ludden persisted, wearing the ring around his own neck on a chain. “In my idiocy, I wasted a whole year, we could have been together,” said White. When Ludden sent White a stuffed bunny with jeweled earrings the next Easter, she finally said yes. “We got married and I moved to New York for four years.” Then the producers moved “Password” back to California, “and life was wonderful.”
The couple was friends with Mary Tyler Moore and her husband, broadcast executive Grant Tinker, long before White joined Moore’s series.
“I think Allen was in college with Grant Tinker,” says Gavin MacLeod, who played Murray on the newsroom comedy and who was promoting the PBS documentary in Los Angeles in July. “They were good friends from years ago. And so Grant and Mary and Allen and Betty were social friends, and they used to come every Friday to watch us shoot the show, Allen and Betty.”
When Valerie Harper left to star in her own spinoff series, “Rhoda,” the writers on the show created the character of the “Happy Homemaker,” Sue Ann Nivens, for White. MacLeod’s recollection was that Moore simply called White up and asked her if she wanted to be on her show. Moore told her a character had been written for her. “Oh, I’ll play anything,” replied White. A few years after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air, White and Ludden appeared together as a couple on MacLeod’s next series, The Love Boat. “They were great together,” he recalls. “They had a chemistry that you couldn’t believe.”
Sadly, Ludden died of cancer in 1981; he was 62 years old. The couple was married for 17 years; White never re-married.