Betty White's Wild Kingdom

Betty White

She is the original America's sweetheart. Baby-faced and witty in the 1950s sitcom "Life With Elizabeth." Sultry and outre as Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." And, of course, delightfully dim as Rose on "Golden Girls."

Not that anyone could forget her recurring role as the conniving, gossip-loving Catherine Piper in ABC's "Boston Legal."

But Betty White hasn't stopped there. Starting next week, White will appear as the flip Elka in the premiere of TV Land's first scripted comedy, "Hot in Cleveland." The cast is chock full of talented actors, including Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick and Jane Leeves.

Betty White: The Golden Girl
Betty White: The Golden Girl

But it is the legendary White who has built most of the buzz for the new comedy.

Some are calling the recent proliferation of White on the airwaves -- she recently hosted "Saturday Night Live" -- a career renaissance. But her star never really faded. For six decades, she has been a fixture in the world of entertainment, from game shows to hit sitcoms, late-night hosting gigs to hit ad campaigns.

Funny, then, that White, now 88½ years young, calls acting "just a hobby."

VIDEO: Comic actress says co-star Rue McClanahan was "our butterfly."
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Rivaling White's "hobby" in front of the camera is one she is less known for but equally committed to. For decades, the Los Angeles Zoo has been White's second home. To say that she's a familiar face among the cages would be a vast understatement.

"Well, I've been around so long they can't get rid of me," said White on a recent trip to the zoo, where she has worked for four decades as a trustee, fundraiser and all-around booster. Indeed, White not only knows the zookeepers but most of the animals as well, by name.

"Growing up, first I wanted to be a forest ranger, and girls couldn't be forest rangers back then," White said. "Then I thought, oh, but I want to be a zookeeper. And back then, girls weren't zookeepers either, but I wound up a zookeeper. I made my goal."

Betty White: The Sweetheart Treatment

White is perfectly democratic in her bestowal of affection across the animal kingdom. A koala bear gets the "sweetheart" treatment.

"Come on over here sweetheart, where we can see your pretty face," White told one bear. "That's it, come on, baby. That's my baby, that's my baby. That's my girl. A little girl."

Even less traditionally cute specimens -- a tapir, say -- win White's enthusiastic love.

"There's my baby," White tells one. "Look at that beautiful baby."

Tapirs are fuzzy quadrupeds with cannon-shaped snouts that despite centuries of evolution retain a look that can only be described as "prehistoric." And she calls this cuddly?

"To me they are," White said, laughing.

Also cuddly is Billy the elephant. Billy the elephant gets serious "sweetheart" treatment.

"There's our Billy. There's our Billy," White cooed as the ponderous animal approached. "Come on baby, come on baby, come on sweetheart. Come on darlin', come on sweetheart... good boy. Good boy. Well thank you for coming.

Billy has reason to be extra friendly with White. The actress is playing elephant matchmaker, helping to raise $42 million to find a mate and provide habitat and expenses for the elephant's future family.

"But there's a certain breeding age, there's a very, very serious situation, but we'll find her for you, Billy, I promise," White said.

And it's not just Billy who's benefiting. As we find out, her zeal sows human rewards, too.

Dean Hite, a member of the plumbers union, was working on the zoo's new elephant habitat.

"It's such a pleasure to meet you," Hite told White. "I was out of work for nine months, and this kicked off, and you put me back to work."

"Well I'm delighted," said White. "Hey, and you're doing a beautiful job."

At the gorilla habitat, White was mobbed by visitors, all wanting to take a picture with the octogenarian actress.

We asked White what it was like to have so many young people clamoring for a moment with her.

"I'm the oldest old broad on the face of the earth," White said. "I'm 88-and-a-half, and a lot of these people -- the kids have grown up with me, and their parents have grown up with me, and their grandparents have grown up with me. I'm a fixture as far as they're concerned. And that's why they kind of feel that we're, you know, close."

Betty White: Bawdy Humor

If you've ever wondered whether her many quips were White's own, or came from the minds of writers, this outing answered that. She's quick and spontaneous, scolding a tapir at one point. "She's not supposed to eat in bed," the actress explained.

Her lines have that signature Betty White devilish twinkle. It's a twinkle Americans have been in love with for a very long time. And White shows no sign of slowing down.

"I have a bawdy sense of humor," said White. "I have to keep my mental editor awake at all times, and sometimes he dozes off. But I love double entendre. If somebody gets it, they laugh and think it's funny, and if they don't get it, who knows -- and it doesn't matter. But double entendre has kind of gone by the wayside. Now it's all -- they let it all hang out and practically explain it to you. But that's just a matter of personal taste."

We asked White if she considers her current work a comeback.

"I've been working steady for 63 years," White said. "But everybody says, 'Oh, it's such a renaissance.' Maybe I went away and didn't know it."

White said she never felt like retiring.

"I just enjoy what I do too much," she said. "You can't ... If they want me to go away, just stop asking me."

Turning to the subject of love, we asked White about losing her husband, game show host Allen Ludden, who died in 1981. She never remarried.

"When you've had the best, who needs the rest?" she said. "I've had friends, and I certainly haven't been living in a closet."

Her "mental editor" suddenly kicked in, and she laughed.

"Well, that was an unfortunate thing to say."

Not that White won't admit to a certain glowing ember. We asked her whether there was anything in show business she wanted to do that she hasn't.

"I always have one answer for that question: that's Robert Redford," White said.

Meaning star opposite Robert Redford?

"That's not necessarily what I meant, but if that works for you, fine!" she said, laughing.

On Rue McClanahan

Earlier this month, White became the sole surviving "Golden Girl" when Rue McClanahan died at age 76.

"Ruesie, Rue McClanahan, she was very special," said White. "And she and I, she was our butterfly. I talked to her like three days before we lost her, and her speech was beginning to come back, and she had the massive stroke after the triple bypass. But, we lost her, so I'm the last, I'm the survivor. And it's so ironic, because I was the oldest of all four of them.

"Isn't that silly?"

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