Betty White’s ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ castmate details their bond: ‘She gave me permission to tell naughty jokes’

White, whose saucy charm made her a television mainstay for more than 60 years, whether as a man-crazy TV hostess on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or the loopy housemate on “The Golden Girls,” died Dec. 31 at the age of 99.

White would have turned 100 Jan. 17.

“We all felt that Betty was going to live forever,” Bulifant told Fox News. “But she will live forever in all of our hearts because wherever she went, she just made you feel fun and joyous.”

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Joyce Bulifant (left) and Betty White worked on 'The Mary Tyler Moore' show together

Joyce Bulifant (left) and Betty White worked on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore’ show together (Courtesy of Joyce Bulifant)

In 2017, Bulifant wrote a memoir titled “My Four Hollywood Husbands,” in which she detailed her marriages, as well as how she found success on popular TV shows, such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Bulifant played Marie Slaughter, wife of newsman Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod). White was cast as “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens in the hit series.

“We were together on set, but also on game shows too,” Bulifant recalled. “We appeared on ‘Match Game,’ and I sat in the same seat that she did to keep it warm for her until she came back. I just remember her being so warm, joyful and welcoming to me. She was always so kind, not just to me, but to everyone she met.”

And White even encouraged her to have fun right along with her.

“One thing I loved about her is that she gave me permission to tell naughty jokes,” Bulifant chuckled. “She said that whenever I told her naughty jokes, it sounded like a nursery rhyme. So that gave me permission.”

Betty White easily won over audiences on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’.

Betty White easily won over audiences on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

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But their bond on set while bringing “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to life nearly didn’t happen. White almost wasn’t cast in the sitcom despite her and her husband, Allen Ludden, being close friends with Moore and Moore’s husband at the time, producer Grant Tinker. 

White feared that if she somehow failed on the show, which was already a huge hit, it would be embarrassing for the pals. However, CBS casting head Ethel Winant insisted White was the only logical choice.

The role of Sue Ann Nivens, originally planned as a one-shot appearance, lasted until Moore ended the series in 1977.

“She brought her own wonderful sense of humor to that role,” Bulifant explained. “She made Sue Ann flirtatious and deliciously fun for everyone. She was able to make innuendos without being salacious. She certainly had a gift.”

Joyce Bulifant said she and Betty White kept in touch over the years.

Joyce Bulifant said she and Betty White kept in touch over the years. (Ted Shepherd/NBCU Photo Bank)

Bulifant said she and White continued to keep in touch as they advanced in their careers.

“I always remember how generous she was in giving emotionally to others,” said Bulifant. “I remember I asked her if she wanted to be part of an organization for abused children that I was supporting. And she did it, no question. I also remember when I was no longer part of the organization. She was being honored one day. I was in the back of the room.

“She was just so sweet. But then she said, ‘You know who brought me into this organization? Joyce Bulifant. And there she is in the back of the room! Everybody, let’s give her a hand.’ I was just stunned. It was just so kind of her to thank me at that moment.”

Bulifant also described how White’s husband, the beloved game show host, was just as sweet as his spouse.

Unidentified guest contestant, Betty White and Allen Ludden on the game show ‘Password’.

Unidentified guest contestant, Betty White and Allen Ludden on the game show ‘Password’. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

“I thought he was so wonderful and kind,” she explained. “I did ‘Password’ a lot, which I happened to be very good at. I’m dyslexic, so I thought it was the perfect game show for me. He was so fun and made everyone feel right at home. I even won the celebrity match one time, and boy, I felt like Miss America when I beat all of those stars!”

White and Ludden said “I do” in 1963. They remained together until his death in 1981 at age 63. White never remarried.

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“They were so supportive of each other’s careers,” said Bulifant. “And I knew how much she loved him. She talked about him all the time. What they had was special, and she always remembered that. I wish I knew what their secret was. I would be a genius. But you know, I was also lucky to be married to the love of my life. And I think she felt the same way. She was lucky and she knew it. Because not everyone has that.”

Bulifant said she had made plans to visit White before her passing – but it sadly never happened.

(Original Caption) Mary Tyler Moore and her weekly comedy series won five Emmys at the 28th Annual Television Academy Awards. Show regulars (left to right) Edward Asner, Betty White, Mary Tyler Moore and Ted Knight.

(Original Caption) Mary Tyler Moore and her weekly comedy series won five Emmys at the 28th Annual Television Academy Awards. Show regulars (left to right) Edward Asner, Betty White, Mary Tyler Moore and Ted Knight. (Getty Images)

“I felt awful because I had moved to Colorado and lost track for a while,” she said. “And then when I came to LA for a visit, I wanted to see her. I called and the lady who took care of making arrangements for her answered. I told her I wanted to see her, and she said, ‘Oh yes, Betty would love that. She would love to see you. I’ll get back to you. Please call me again on this day so we can schedule it and make it happen.’ I wrote down the number she gave me and I lost that slip of paper. And then my husband had been diagnosed with cancer. So I was certainly not in a good frame of mind to keep anything together.”

“I lost track,” Bulifant admitted. “That makes me very sad. It’s one of those moments when someone passes, and you think, ‘Why didn’t I make that effort?’ It continues to be a very sad thing for me. I just had lunch with a friend who told me she was worried about her sister. I told her, ‘Go see her now.’ Because you just never know how much time you have with someone. And with Betty, I think we all thought she was going to live forever. I miss her warmth and kindness.”

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Witjas said White had been staying close to her Los Angeles home during the pandemic out of caution but had no diagnosed illness.

In a People cover story on White’s 100th birthday, the magazine’s Jan. 10 issue touted White’s secrets for longevity and quoted her as saying, “Funny never gets old.” 

Betty White would have turned 100 on Jan. 17.

Betty White would have turned 100 on Jan. 17. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

White’s agent and longtime friend Jeff Witjas said it was as if White insisted on a last laugh.

“It’s a wonderful tribute, and she has to pull this,” he said.

Bulifant said she hopes White’s kindness, as well as her love for animals, will always be remembered.

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“Oh my goodness, she was such a great animal lover,” said Bulifant. “She contributed to so many causes for both little creatures and big creatures. She felt they always needed to be taken care of. She did a wonderful, wonderful job with that. And she treated human beings the same way.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.