Actress Betty White arrives at the Hollywood premiere of The Proposal in 2009. (Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)
Betty White's time on television, from Life With Elizabeth and The Mary Tyler Moore Show to The Golden Girls, Hot in Cleveland and many more shows, was well documented. But it was her appearance in a movie, the 2009 hit The Proposal, that fueled a late-in-life resurgence that included a Super Bowl commercial, a string of awards show appearances and a gig hosting Saturday Night Live (which netted her a fifth Emmy).
And her performance in the romantic comedy, in which she played Ryan Reynolds's grandmother, a woman just as clever and funny as she is kindhearted, stood out, even among a terrific cast that was also led by Sandra Bullock. White was left out of the Oscar race in favor of more dramatic turns, but she did merit an MTV Movie Award and a couple of Teen Choice Awards. Pretty impressive for an octogenarian!
In honor of what would have been the late star's 100th birthday on Jan. 17, here's a look back at what she and others involved with the film have said about her time there.
'Let her be Betty White'
The accomplished actress felt compelled to do the movie, which was written by first-time screenwriter Peter Chiarelli and directed by Step Up's Anne Fletcher, right away.
Betty White and Sandra Bullock co-starred in The Proposal. (Photo: Sam Emerson/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
"It sounds corny, but I get a lot of scripts sent to me," White told Australia's Female.com while promoting the film. "And some of them are not your cup of tea. You know. So I just say a polite, 'Thank you, thank you for thinking of me. But I'm booked.' But then every once in a while... I loved this script for The Proposal when I first read it."
White explained that it was the juiciness of the role that attracted her.
"First of all, how many people at my age have a part in there as good as the part in this movie? You know, that doesn't happen often," she said. "Usually the little old person comes in, says something outrageous, and splits. But I liked the romantic aspect. I liked the fact that they didn't throw in a lot of garbage that so many other things think they have to include in that kind of thing. And I cared about whether these two people got back together. So, I got hooked on it then. And, of course, when I heard Sandra and Ryan were going to do it, that clinched it for me."
And Bullock was super excited to welcome her to the cast.
"With Betty White. I said, if you get Betty White, I want to be in that scene reacting off of her. I don't want to be speaking," Bullock explained. "You let her be Betty White, because that's, that's gold."
'Part of me hated her'
On the set, White made an indelible impression on the stellar ensemble, which also included The Office actor Oscar Nuñez. He played Ramone, who had multiple jobs, including one as a stripper, in Reynolds's small hometown. There's a hilarious scene in which he takes the stage at a strip club before an audience that includes White, which he remembers fondly.
"I'm so glad I got to meet and work with Betty White," Nuñez tells Yahoo Entertainment. "On my first day of shooting The Proposal, it was my strip dance scene. It was the most fun I had shooting a scene in a movie. And it was also a very long day. At the end of the day, we were still shooting that same scene, and we were all feeling very tired, but Betty White was the consummate professional who didn't complain, who was positive and focused. She was ready to go again. And I thought, 'If Betty White, who is in her 80s, can do this with such grace, so can I. Part of me hated her because I really wanted to complain. I love you, Betty White."
Oscar Nuñez performs a strip tease for Sandra Bullock and the women of The Proposal. White and other women of the cast were in the audience. (Photo: Kerry Hayes/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Cast member Malin Akerman, who first encountered White just a little earlier, says the best part of working with the TV legend was her "unbreakable and infectious positivity.
"I remember being in the hair and make up trailer when I first met Betty," Akerman shares with us. "I was trying to be on my best behavior in front of this legend and not let my trucker mouth get the best of me, when, before I knew it, Betty had us all in tears with her off-the-cuff humor, filled with rude words and clever, dirty innuendos! A gal who knew the way straight to my heart!"
Character actor Denis O'Hare, who played the immigration agent hot on the trail of Reynolds and Bullock's Andrew and Margaret, also raved about having White around.
"Working with Betty White was everything I'd dreamed it would be," O'Hare tells us. "She was funny, quick quick quick with just the right flick of intonation to land a jeweled, barbed joke — all with a smile."
Denis O'Hare plays the (rightly) suspicious immigration agent in The Proposal. (Photo: Kerry Hayes/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The former Golden Girl was just as terrific as shooting came to an end, as Nuñez recounted.
"I wasn't there to witness this. I truly wish I were," he says. "I heard that on Betty's last day of work on The Proposal, she gave a farewell speech to the cast and crew. 'Thank you all for a lovely time... this was the most fun I had on any movie set.' She turned to leave. Everyone clapped and said, 'Aw.' She turned back around and said, 'While standing up.'"
Betty White and director Anne Fletcher collaborate on set. (Photo: Sam Emerson/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
'She's a [bleeped word] national treasure!'
The cast's chemistry was obvious on the screen, but it shone through especially as they made the rounds to promote their movie. In one example, White and Bullock gave the crowd a laugh at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2010. As White accepted a Life Achievement Award from Bullock, she grabbed her hand and deadpanned, "Isn't it heartening to see how far a girl as plain as she is can go?"
And White's bond with the group continued in the years afterward.
For instance, Reynolds wished White happy birthday in 2021 by releasing a funny sketch the two had filmed with Bullock when their movie was released. It showed the funny trio, particularly White, in fine form, as the latter mistook Reynolds for an assistant, even though they had been working together for weeks. Still, Bullock reprimands her leading man for protesting. "She's a [bleeped word] national treasure!" Bullock snaps. "She is. You're not."
And there were more laughs to come. In an interview with People magazine to mark her 100th birthday, White joked that Reynolds had been longing for her since they worked together. He had actually referred to her as his ex-girlfriend. "I've heard Ryan can't get over his thing for me," White said, "but Robert Redford is 'The One.'"
When White died, Reynolds and Bullock joined the rest of the cast in paying loving tribute to her. "The world looks different now," his began. "She was great at defying expectation. She managed to grow very old and somehow, not old enough. We'll miss you, Betty. Now you know the secret."
The world looks different now. She was great at defying expectation. She managed to grow very old and somehow, not old enough. We’ll miss you, Betty. Now you know the secret. pic.twitter.com/uevwerjobS
— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) December 31, 2021
Bullock gave a statement to People: "I don't drink vodka… but I will tonight, on ice, with a slice of lemon with a hot dog on the other side and just be OK being sad. I'll have to buy some rose-colored glasses because Betty was that for all of us."
The Oscar winner's former co-star, O'Hare, tells Yahoo Entertainment that he has special plans for Jan. 17, which also happens to be his own birthday. It stems back to his favorite memory of White.
"We were sharing a van home after a day of shooting up on the shore north of Boston and we chatted. She asked me what I was doing and I said I was just gonna stay in. She said, 'I'm gonna have a martini and a Cobb salad,'" O'Hare says of White, who famously loved vodka martinis. "On January 17th, I know what I'm going to do. I don't drink but I'm gonna have a special virgin cocktail with a Cobb salad."