Senior Class: Betty White’s 90th Shines Spotlight on TV’s Oldest Stars

by | December 24, 2011 at 8:18 AM | TV News

Here’s a trivia question on the occasion of next month’s prime-time special on NBC celebrating Betty White’s 90th birthday: Who was the last star to have a special marking the same milestone?

The answer: It was Bob Hope, who marked his own 90th birthday with a special – also on NBC – in May 1993. Fact is, other than Bob and Betty, we can’t remember any other 90th birthday specials.

That’s how rare it is for an actor or TV personality to still be working at that advanced age and yet, it got us thinking: When Andy Rooney retired from “60 Minutes” last September, he was 92 (he died, unfortunately, in November). And then we wondered who might be considered the oldest living TV personality – either still working or retired.

One of the names we hit upon was Harry Morgan, the “M*A*S*H” and “Dragnet” star who died earlier this month at age 96. He’d been retired for a while, but Morgan’s career went back to the earliest days of television. Betty White – who’s busier today than she’s ever been – goes back that far too. She dates her first appearance on the new medium back to 1949, 62 years ago.

TV'S SENIOR CLASS: Top: Betty White (in 2011 and 1950) and Ernest Borgnine (2011 and 1963); middle: Carl Reiner (2011 and 1963) and Hugh Downs (2007 and 1954); bottom, l-r: Don Pardo, Joyce Randolph, Alan Young, Mike Wallace (Photos: Getty Images, AP)

Who else, from among today’s still-living TV oldsters can make the same claim? To find out, we looked up the ages and careers of personalities who came to mind as we went through a mental inventory of TV by the decade to try and jog our memory.

Here are a few of the names we came up with. (And by the way, this list is by no means comprehensive, which is to say: We’re reasonably certain we haven’t thought of every still-living TV luminary over, say, the age of 85, with TV roots in the 1950s and ’60s, but despite this shortcoming, we think it’s an interesting group anyway.)

Well, among those no longer active on TV, we came up with Mike Wallace, 92, the “60 Minutes” correspondent whose roots in broadcasting go all the way back to radio in the 1940s; Alan Young, 92, star of “Mister Ed”; Hugh Downs, 90; Joyce Randolph, 87 (as the last surviving cast member from the classic “Honeymooners,” she’s a national treasure); Jean Stapleton, 88 (“All in the Family”); and Bob Barker, 88.

Among those still working at an advanced age: Carl Reiner, 89; and William Schallert, 89.

But the oldest living, still-active TV personalities? We came up with two: One would be Ernest Borgnine, 94 (“McHale’s Navy”), who’s still working in TV and movies. The other one is someone you rarely see on-screen, but whose voice is among the most familiar in the history of television: Don Pardo, 93, who’s still announcing the introductions on “Saturday Night Live.”

Betty White will be 90 on Jan. 17. Her birthday special – “Betty White’s 90th Birthday: A Tribute to America’s Golden Girl” – airs the night before, on Monday, Jan. 16, at 8/7c on NBC. After the show, at 9:30/8:30c, NBC will present a sneak peek of a new reality show starring Betty – “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers” – in which senior citizens will play hidden-camera pranks on young people. And, of course, she’s also seen on the TV Land sitcom “Hot in Cleveland.”

Watch Ernest Borgnine in a classic episode of “McHale’s Navy” right here:
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