Funny lady Betty White is serious about her love for animals

 
 
Updated 8/17/2012 1:26 PM
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  • Betty White and her dog Pontiac. The Hollywood icon will attend a fundraiser in Hinsdale this weekend for BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center.

    Betty White and her dog Pontiac. The Hollywood icon will attend a fundraiser in Hinsdale this weekend for BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center. File Photo

  • Betty White will be in Hinsdale this weekend.

    Betty White will be in Hinsdale this weekend.

Remember that time when Betty White called your cellphone to chat about horses and being hilarious and 90?

Yeah, me neither.

Oh wait! That did happen to me! On Monday!

She called, we chatted it up -- her voice sounding sweet as a little old lady sitting snug on a couch somewhere, probably knitting her cat a sweater.

Except she was really taking a break from being an award-winning actress with 60-plus years in the business who's still kicking it on her current sitcom "Hot in Cleveland."

Between filming, traveling, answering fan mail and spending time with her golden retriever, Pontiac, she took 16 minutes and 58 seconds to talk to me.

It was glorious.

Not to rub it in, though. I'll share.

It's hard to think of Betty White and not hear the theme from "The Golden Girls" in the background ("Thank you for being a friend ...").

Those who are a little older probably remember her sexually charged character Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," or her many stints as a celebrity guest on game shows such as "Hollywood Squares" and "Password."

Younger peeps may favor the 2010 Super Bowl halftime Snickers commercial -- showing her character being tackled into a mud puddle -- that reignited her already highly successful career.

She's been everywhere since that commercial -- including hosting "Saturday Night Live," starring in and producing a Punk'd-like elderly prankster show, "Off Their Rockers," rapping in a music video with Luciana ("I may be a senior, but I'm still hot"), and making the talk show rounds.

Spend some time watching YouTube videos of Betty and expect to laugh.

But what you won't see or hear as much about is her love of animals. It's serious.

So serious, that she's flying from her home in California to Hinsdale this weekend to lend a celebrity face to a fundraiser for BraveHearts, a therapeutic horse riding not-for-profit group with stables in Poplar Grove and Harvard.

Let's not forget, she's 90 -- although you wouldn't know it from speaking with her. She's still sharp and humble and gracious. And, of course, funny.

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation. Read it and imagine her character Rose Nylund from the "The Golden Girls." She sounds exactly the same.

Q. Everyone loves you so much. What's it like to be adored by so many people?

A. Well, I don't know that's true, but it's nice to hear it anyway. There's probably just as many people who don't feel that way.

Q. You've had more than 60 years in show business. What's it like to still be in the spotlight?

A. It's ridiculous at my age! I'm 90 years old and still have the privilege of working and enjoying this wonderful business. And working with people like Valerie Bertinelli and Wendie Malick and Jane Leeves -- it's really a privilege that I never take for granted.

Q. Everyone wants to know how you're doing it -- 90 years old with such a busy schedule …

A. Well, I'm blessed with good health. That's another privilege, and my energy level stays up. And I love what I do for a living, so I'm very privileged. I wouldn't have changed any minute of it.

Q. Most people know you for your roles on TV, but something they might not know is that you're a huge champion for animals.

A. Yes, I always say I have to stay in show business to pay for my animal business.

Q. Tell me about the different organizations you're involved with.

A. Well, I've work with the Los Angeles Zoo for more than 15 years, and the Morris Animal Foundation, which is an animal health organization. We fund humane studies into specific health problems of dogs, cats, horses and zoo wildlife. We helped develop the feline leukemia vaccine and the parvovirus vaccine for dogs and the Potomac fever vaccine for horses. It's a wonderful organization.

Q. Have you always had a passion for animals?

A. Since the womb. My mother and father were the same way.

Q. Did you grow up with lots of pets?

A. Not lots of them. We would always try to keep it down to about three because you run out of hands. And the close relationships -- if you have too many animals you don't get that wonderful one-on-one relationship.

Q. I heard you've hung out with some pretty famous animals recently during a trip to the White House. You got to meet Bo, the First Dog?

A. Oh, Bo, and I fell in love! I'm going to ask for his hand in marriage. I was taken on a wonderful tour of the White House before I met President Obama, and we walked into this room and here's Bo just hanging out. And he jumped up onto the couch so I sat down on the couch and he stretched himself across my lap and we spent a half-hour together just schmoozing. It was wonderful.

And Bo took me on a tour of the grounds after I met the president and he said, "This is my First Lady's vegetable gardens, and this is my pool." He was such a good guide. He's just adorable.

Q. Do you still have your golden retriever?

A. My golden is up on the couch right now being interviewed by you as we speak. He's the only one I have at this point.

Q. What's his name?

A. Pontiac. He was a career-change guide dog.

Q. Who would win a cutest dog contest? Pontiac or Bo?

A. Oh, well, of course the proud mother has to say Pontiac, but Bo would be a close runner-up.

Q. Everyone thinks you're so funny, but who do you watch for a laugh? Is there anyone who makes you laugh so hard you almost pee your pants?

A. Jon Stewart can make me laugh like that. And David Letterman and I get into a laughing match like that once in a while. The one who can really break me up without fail is Tim Conway.

Q. Is there a favorite character that you've played over the years? Is there anyone that you miss?

A. Oh yes. I miss Sue Ann (from the "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), and I miss Rose (from "The Golden Girls"). You can't really play a regular character in a show that you love without missing them when they're gone. I think Rose I miss the most.

Q. Did you imagine that so many years down the road people would still be enjoying those reruns today?

A. No, you never think of that. You're lucky if you still get to play (that character) tomorrow.

Q. Do you mind if we do a little word association?

A. That sounds like fun.

Q. The Romney-Ryan presidential ticket. Thoughts on that?

A. Nope. I'm happy to endorse Mr. Obama and I'm very much in his camp.

Q. Social media.

A. I'm definitely not into that.

Q. Being 90.

A. It's the best thing in the world. I'm blessed with good health, and that's all you can ask. You get by with murder when you're this old.

Q. Rose Nylund.

A. Oh, one of my best friends. I love Rose. She was, I think, my favorite character. She was totally innocent. She thought life was going to have a happy ending. She didn't have a mean bone in her body.

Q. Do you see any of yourself in Rose?

A. They used to ask Allen (Ludden, her late husband) that about Sue Ann Nivens, known as the neighborhood nymphomaniac. She could do anything, she could fix anything, she could mend anything. They'd ask Allen, "How close of a character is Betty?" And he'd say, "They're the same person, except Betty can't cook."

Well, Rose was really like Betty. I'm a cockeyed optimist, and I like people cheerful around me and kind, as opposed to negative.

Q. What comes to mind when you think of therapeutic horses?

A. Ahh, BraveHearts. They really do so much good. I'm looking forward to going back to BraveHearts.

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