Hollywood is a fickle town — and the television business is no exception. Big hits come and go, small-screen heroes rise and fall, public tastes ebb and flow.
But the late Betty White, who died Friday at 99, gleefully defied the unwritten rules of American television stardom. She was a mainstay of the medium for seven decades, perpetually relevant and perennially beloved.
How did she pull it off?
White was a preternaturally talented television performer, first and foremost: gifted with a winning smile, an easy charm and impeccable comic timing that made her a perfect fit for the medium.
She was also a quietly versatile comedic actor, capable of making subtle changes in her voice and mannerisms without seeming to break a sweat or loose her lightness of touch.
She could play slyly sweet (“Life With Elizabeth”), calculatedly cloying (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”), likably loopy (“The Golden Girls”) — or sometimes all of the above.
Yet none of this sufficiently explains why, decades after the ratings heydays of her most famous sitcoms, White remained an agreeably ubiquitous celebrity.
The answer might come down to her sheer adaptability.
White, who started her career when the TV medium was essentially in its infancy, showed an instinctive knack for keeping up with the times, finding success in new formats.
In the early decades of TV, she cycled through some of the most popular genres of the era: family-friendly sitcoms, a variety revue, game shows. (She was a reliable guest on competition programs like “To Tell the Truth” and “What’s My Line?”)
In the 1970s and ’80s, as sitcoms grew more sophisticated, she immersed herself in finely sketched characters: guileful Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and guileless Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls.”
By the 2000s, as HBO and other cable destinations loosened up some of the medium’s staid traditions, White adapted her persona yet again, earning a new generation of fans in surprisingly salty roles.
She played a sassy homeowner on TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” and an unexpectedly sharp-tongued grandma in the Sandra Bullock movie comedy “The Proposal.”
Yet there was yet more in store for White as she neared the final decade of her life. In recent years, White’s likeness was all over digital media, reaching more admirers through GIFs, YouTube clips, “Golden Girls” screenshots and affectionate Twitter memes.
White seemed to understand that modern celebrity meant showing a willingness to good-naturedly subvert her public image, putting edge on her wholesomeness.
How many Eisenhower-era TV actors could pull off football field trash talk in a Super Bowl commercial or jokingly feud with Ryan Reynolds?
The dirty one-liners she dished out at the Comedy Central roast of William Shatner in 2006 were clever enough — but there was a deeper joke: the delightful shock of seeming a dimpled, sweet-natured older woman gamely jump into the foul-mouthed fray.
It is difficult to overstate the vast technological and cultural changes that White witnessed in her remarkable career. She was there in the days of black-and-white TV sets topped by rabbit-ear antennas. She was there for the rise of cable. She was there for Netflix and WiFi.
She was a throwback, but only to a point. In her prolific career and spirited life, White demonstrated a certain fearlessness, heartily jaunting from project to project — and merrily unafraid of whatever came next.
Daniel Arkin is a reporter for NBC News who focuses on popular culture and the entertainment industry, particularly film and television.