Unlike the gibbering zanies who seek their fortunes on Let’s Make a Deal or The New Treasure Hunt, no one ever dressed up like a pineapple on Password, or swooned at a chance for a windfall. But when Betty White guest-starred on the infant word-game show 15 years ago, she set a record of sorts for contestant winnings. She got the host.
Her prize, as she still regards him, was Allen Ludden, the owlish, bemused emcee who once pitched the questions on GE’s College Bowl and went on to become a model of sanity on daytime TV. In 1961 he was a recent widower with three teenage children. Betty was a once-burned divorcée. Romance flowered when they met again the following summer while co-starring on the Cape Cod strawhat circuit. “I fell in love with her opening night,” he admits. Counters Betty: “Allen falls in love very easily. He says, ‘Hello, will you marry me?’ ”
Given Ludden’s tactics—shamelessly coddling Betty’s beloved poodles, Nicky and Emma—his competition was doomed from the start. Ludden eventually concluded a year-long courtship by sending Betty a stuffed Easter bunny with gold-and-sapphire earrings and a note pleading, “Now, come on, will you marry me?” She didn’t have the heart to refuse. “It wasn’t the earrings that did it,” Betty confesses. “It was the goddamned bunny. I still have it.”
Earlier this year Ludden still seemed to have his winner’s touch. He picked up his first Emmy as TV’s top daytime announcer and subsequently began massaging celebrity egos on the NBC game show Stumpers. “He’s the perfect host,” raves producer Lin Bolen. “You can’t write lines as good as the ones he keeps coming up with spontaneously.”
Betty, meanwhile, grabbed a second straight Emmy herself for her sugar-and-cyanide performance as The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Happy Homemaker, Sue Ann Nevins. Though the show ends this year, MTM is planning to spin Betty off à la Rhoda and Phyllis, and she is accepting with few questions asked. “At my age and weight,” says Betty, 54, but a trim 117 pounds, “you don’t turn down a series pilot.”
Though they go their separate ways professionally, Allen and Betty are each other’s best audience. Betty and her mother attend most of Allen’s tapings, and he’s on the set when she’s filming. “They’re like newlyweds,” marvels Bolen. “When they can’t be together at work, they call each other from their dressing rooms.”
For all Betty’s dimply high spirits, however, and Allen’s still-boyish enthusiasm (he’s 59), they’ve both taken their lumps with the sugar. At this year’s Emmy Awards, Betty sounded an echo of the feline Sue Ann, thanking the “evil, wonderful, nasty” business of television for her honor. Two years ago, embarrassed by her CBS stardom, NBC axed Betty after 19 years as color commentator at Pasadena’s Rose Parade. “On New Year’s Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade,” she wails. (She worked for CBS for the 1976 parade to round out 20 years, then quit for good.)
Allen’s turn for the taste of ashes came last month when NBC killed Stumpers, effective Dec. 31. Betty is lending moral support by sitting in as his Christmas week celebrity guest. And on the upcoming New Year’s Eve finale Allen will deliver an emotional, four-minute farewell. “It’s the first time I’ve been canceled like this,” says Ludden, whose popularity remains sky-high in the closely watched TV-Q (or likability) ratings. “I’d waited a long time rather than just take anything, and Stumpers was the best game show that came along. We’ve reached a nadir in game shows now. Nobody ever does anything anymore—they spin a wheel and they win or they don’t.” Adds an angry Bolen: “The network’s really going to be sorry when the women find out Allen’s been canceled.”
Despite occasional disillusionments, both Ludden and White have spent most of their working lives on TV. Born in Oak Park, Ill., the daughter of an electrical engineer who specialized in outdoor lighting (including the illumination of Salt Lake City’s Mormon temple), Betty was bundled off to Los Angeles with her family when she was 2. After graduation from Beverly Hills High School, she attended drama classes, began playing the local little theater circuit and did radio commercials for $5 each.
Later she worked briefly as an L.A. deejay’s Girl Friday, then graduated to co-host of his five-and-a-half-hour, six-day-a-week TV show that she eventually took over herself. Afterward she formed her own production company to crank out a piquant situation comedy called Life with Elizabeth, for which she was also head writer and star. That led to her first Emmy as 1952’s top female TV personality. Betty went on to host her own daytime talk show for NBC-TV, then began a kind of pseudo career as a permanent floating game-and-talk-show guest. (She showed up 65 times on Jack Paar’s Tonight show.) Along the way, her two-year marriage to Universal director Lane Allan fizzled, though they remain friends. “We just shouldn’t have married,” she says.
Ludden, born in Mineral Point, Wis. and raised in San Antonio, Texas, earned a master’s degree in English—plus a Phi Beta key—at the University of Texas. During World War II he was assigned to Army Special Services in Hawaii (under Major Maurice Evans, the actor)and found his vocation staging shows for the troops. After the war, he ended up in Hartford, Conn. hosting an advice show for teenagers on radio. The program eventually became TV’s College Bowl in 1958, with Ludden as host and his friend Grant Tinker—Mary Tyler Moore’s husband—as scorekeeper. (The two are still close and formed their own production company in 1973.) The quiz show ran for more than a decade, but Ludden left in 1962 when Password, which had started a year earlier, began requiring more of his time.
Allen’s first wife, Margaret, died of cancer in 1961, and Betty inherited a ready-made family. (The children, now grown, are David, 28, a doctoral candidate in Far Eastern and Indian studies at the University of Pennsylvania; Martha, 26, a schoolteacher in San Pedro, Calif., and Sarah, 24, the only unmarried Ludden, a graduate student at Northwestern.) Allen, in turn, inherited poodles Nicky and Emma, now geriatric cases of 15 and 16, and a wife with an ardor for animals. Betty once hosted a talk show for pets and their celebrity owners, and though the program was put to sleep after a single season, she remains active in causes ranging from Cleveland Amory’s The Fund for Animals to a group seeking vasectomies for coyotes.
With Allen soon to be at liberty, Betty becomes the family breadwinner, pitching commercials for Fantastick and Spray ‘n Wash and looking forward to the February pilot. Ludden, fortunately, has never regarded their marriage as competition—except when it comes to the couple’s mano a mano gin rummy which has been going on ever since they were married. After 14 years he’s ahead by 10,000 points.