Telling Betty’s story

Filmmaker and Town of Grafton resident Mike Trinklein and his partner spent 15 years interviewing Betty White and an A-list of Hollywood stars for a movie that was released in theaters on what would have been the actress’ 100th birthday
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

It would be hard to find anyone who didn’t like Betty White, the maven of the small screen who touched lives with her wit, wisdom and warmth.

And few people could tell you more about White than Mike Trinklein.

The Town of Grafton man is a filmmaker whose latest flick, “Betty White: A Celebration,” hit theaters nationwide for a one-day showing on Monday, which would have been White’s 100th birthday.

“It did very well,” Trinklein said, noting it was the third most popular movie that day. 

Given that Monday isn’t a day that most people go out for a movie — and we’re still in the midst of a pandemic — Trinklein said the turnout is testimony to the impact White had on people.

“I’ve heard reports of people crying and people laughing,” he said. “A lot of people went to cry. It was their moment to remember Betty and to let her go.”

The film was personal for Trinklein, who with his partner, former Mequon resident Steve Boettcher, interviewed White numerous times over the past 15 years.

“She’s like you would expect her to be, kind, funny, warm, a little bit naughty,” he said.  “It’s hard not to like her. She was as sweet as she seemed to be. She was energetic and fun.

“The thing people maybe don’t realize about her is she was very smart, and smart on her feet. She was very witty.”

The ability to think fast was one reason White did so well on game shows, Trinklein said.

“She could banter in a way a lot of celebrities can’t,” he said, noting that White “just winged it” when she filmed her last interview 10 days before she died. 

Game shows, he added, were White’s favorite part of television.

“She liked to play games,” Trinklein said. “We’d go to her house and she’d have Scrabble set up.”

White talked of playing backgammon with Lucille Ball, he said, and in the film actress Millicent Martin talked about going to White’s house for parties, enjoying a little caviar and then playing a competitive game of Scrabble.

“She is ruthless,” Martin said, adding, “She loves words.”

When teamed up with someone from outside show business on game shows like “Password,” Trinklein said, White felt a responsibility because she understood that the cash prizes were important to them.

While White did perform in feature films, television was her bread and butter, and because of that, Trinklein said, people tend to think of her as a part of their family.

“She was the crazy aunt everyone wanted to have,” he said.

Trinklein and Boettcher worked on the film for 15 years, since they met White while shooting “Pioneers of Television” for PBS.

“We interviewed her for hours and hours,” Trinklein said. “Part of being a biographer is you want to tell the whole story.”

The movie was envisioned as part of a centennial celebration for White on her birthday, but the partners had to pivot when the actress died on Dec. 31.

They moved ahead, Trinklein said, with the approval of White’s team but reorganized the film and retitled it.

The movie opens with White’s final interview, filmed just 10 days before she died. In it, she thanks her fans for their support through the years.

“It was her final act as a performer,” Trinklein said.

The movie quickly reflects on how White became an icon of today, with her agent talking about how he pushed her to take on new challenges to stay relevant, starting with a roast of actor William Shatner.

“People saw a different side of Betty and it opened things up,” her agent said.

The filmmakers interviewed Dave Mathews, the Texas man who started the Facebook campaign to get White to host “Saturday Night Live,” and then reflects on White’s life, beginning when she was a child and following her through her business career.

The story is told not just through interviews with White and clips of her performances through the years — everything from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the “Carol Burnett Show” to “Golden Girls” to “Hot in Cleveland” — but also through tributes from the many actors she worked with and was friends with, her agents and her personal assistant.  

Those actors included Ryan Reynolds, Valerie Bertinelli, Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, Tom Sullivan, Tina Fey, Alex Trebeck, Gavin MacLeod, Georgia Engel and Wendy Malik.

There are behind-the-scenes looks at White running lines and answering fan mail, touching scenes of White and her husband Allen Ludden and a plethora of shots of her and the animals she loved.
There was far more to White than most people realized, Trinklein said.

“The interesting thing about her was her career went way back,” Trinklein said. “There were all these interesting parts to her.”

White was a talk show host as well as an actress. She performed in comedies as well as dramas, sang and was active in front of the camera as well as behind it. 

She was the first woman to produce a national television show, “The Betty White Show,” in the 1950s, and the first producer to hire a woman director, Trinklein said. 

Arthur Duncan, an African American dancer, was a regular on the show, and television stations in the South called for him to be fired, Trinklein said. White stood up to them and not only refused their demands, she never told Duncan of the issue.

White loved the outdoors and talked of going to the mountains camping with her family.

“Those were her fondest memories,” Trinklein said. “You don’t think of her that way.”

White was known for her love of animals, and Trinklein said that passion was nurtured during these trips.

One clip in the movie that made him nervous showed White visiting an animal shelter, snuggling up to a grizzly bear and feeding it by hand.

“It kind of scared me,” Trinklein said.

“Betty White: A Celebration” was a one-time event, held in 1,500 theaters throughout the country. A number of theaters pressured Trinklein and Boettcher to run the movie for a week, but the intention was always to show it for one day.

A shortened version of the movie is being aired on Peacock Network and on PBS, but it doesn’t include everything that the theatrical version does, including the “Betty Bonus,” an episode of the black-and-white show “Date With the Angels” in which White plays two parts.

Up next for Trinklein is a film about church architecture titled “Secrets of Sacred Architecture” set to air on PBS at Easter.

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