Betty White

"Betty White: First Lady of Television" looks at White's career, which goes back to television's infancy.

There’s a reason why everybody panics when they see that Betty White is trending on Twitter.

We don’t want anything to happen to the legendary television actress, who just celebrated her 97th birthday in January. There’s a protectiveness and warmth that many feel toward White that we don’t feel for many celebrities. She’s been around so long, and for the most part on television, a more intimate media than the movies. As she says, she’s been in our homes.

The documentary “Betty White: First Lady of Television,” which premiered Friday at the Wisconsin Film Festival, is, of course, a lovefest, because who would want to watch anything else about White? But in between the gushing testimonials from the likes of Carl Reiner, Ryan Reynolds and Valerie Bertinelli, there’s the story of a smart, talented woman who figured out right away what made television different. She always seemed at home on the small screen.

White's career in television goes back 80 years — in 1939, as a teenager, she sang on what was then an experimental broadcast in Los Angeles. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, White was on live television for an astonishing six hours a day, honing comedic chops and a twinkle-in-the-eye personality that would serve her for the next 65 years. She would later host her own talk show and produce it, a rarity for women in those days (and not common enough now).

Unlike many TV stars who basically play versions of the same character on series after series (even giants like Bob Newhart), White deliberately tried to stretch herself. The only thing that the vain, backstabbing Sue Ann Nivens of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the sweetly dim Rose Nylund really share is exquisite comic timing.

The movie delves into her great romance with game show host Allen Ludden, a Mineral Point native who was buried there after he died in 1981. Her personal charm extends beyond the human race as well; an ardent animal rights advocate, we see her nuzzling affectionately with a grizzly bear, and she had a close bond with the gorilla Koko.

White has had a resurgence in the last decade, becoming something of a pop culture icon, including a successful Facebook campaign to get her to host “Saturday Night Live” a few years ago. But it wasn’t like she ever really went away.

Co-director Steve Boettcher, a Milwaukee native, told the audience at Shannon Hall that the toughest part of making the film was simply trying to fit everything in. “It’s America’s Sweetheart. You can’t screw this up! The challenge was condensing an 80-year career into a one-hour movie.”

"Betty White: First Lady of Television" was, fittingly, made for television, airing on PBS last summer. Hopefully Boettcher will be able to gather enough new material in the next few years for a sequel.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.