As the world mourns the death of actress and comedienne Betty White, many are learning about or remembering how she shattered television barriers with tap dancer Arthur Duncan.
Duncan was able to go on to make history at least twice more as a result of her determination to defy customary conventions and reject Southern detractors.
The Betty White Show was a spinoff of the KTLA variety show Hollywood on Television, which White first appeared on in 1949. Eddie Albert, one of the Los Angeles-area show’s co-hosts, was given his own namesake spin-off three years later.
Albert, on the other hand, was very active in the film industry and soon left the program to film the famous Roman Holiday. The show was renamed after White at that point, and she took over as host and producer.
Before it was added to NBC’s national program in 1954, Duncan was already a regular on the show, which featured performances by White and others, interviews, skits, and even a kids’ segment. By making Duncan the first Black series regular on a talk program, White had already made history.
Duncan’s involvement in the cast created waves across the Jim Crow South as the show’s reach was expanded beyond LA.
“I was on the show, and they had some letters out of Mississippi and elsewhere that some of the stations would not carry the show if I was permitted to stay on there,” Duncan told Steve Harvey in 2018 ahead of a surprise TV reunion with White. “Well, Betty wrote back and said, ‘Needless to say, we used Arthur Duncan every opportunity we could.’ ”
The Betty White Show may have been discreetly undermined by brands that chose to stay away from the controversy during the overt bigotry. Despite White’s desperate pleas to NBC executives, the show failed to attract sponsors and was terminated on Dec. 31, 1954, according to the 2020 book Betty White on TV.
The show received an Emmy nomination for Best Daytime Program in February 1955, making it the shortest-running program to ever get an Emmy nomination.
Duncan continued to push boundaries after The Betty White Show, which he credits with launching his career.
Duncan was allowed to stay on The Lawrence Welk Show after just one appearance, making him the first Black regular on a variety show. From 1964 through 1982, he was a member of the cast.
“I credit Betty White for really getting me started in show business,” he said. “People in the South, some of them resented me being on the show and wanted me thrown out. And it was never a question at all.”
Explaining the controversy, White said: “All through the South there was this whole ruckus, they were going to take the show off the air if we didn’t get rid of Arthur because he was Black.”
When faced with a boycott threat across the South, White famously remarked, “I’m sorry, but he stays… Live with it!” ”
White died on Friday at the age of 99, barely two and a half weeks before her centennial year, according to PEOPLE. White told PEOPLE about her feelings about becoming 100 years old ahead of her birthday in January.
White attributes her cheery personality to being “born a cockeyed optimist.” “I received it from my mother, and it hasn’t changed,” she explained. “I always look for the bright side.”