Once described by the Wall Street Journal as "television's longest-working actress," the 88-year-old White had her first starring sitcom role in 1953's Life With Elizabeth.
For many years after that you might say she was best known not so much as an actress but as herself, Betty White – pretty, pert, charming – on talk shows and game shows. It was only in middle age that she landed her two most famous roles, both of which confirmed her as a funny, unusually nimble actress who could quicken the chemistry of any sitcom ensemble.
On The Mary Tyler Moore Show she played TV personality Sue Ann Nivens, aka "The Happy Homemaker," a woman as sweet as angel cake on the outside and, under the surface, much more diabolical. Then came The Golden Girls, a sitcom that defied conventional programming wisdom – it was about a bunch of old broads – in which she played naive Rose Nylund.
These days she's enjoying a glorious late career with small roles as playfully sharp old ladies and (basically the same thing) cameos as herself.
5 of Her Memorable Roles Password: For nearly 20 years, White and her husband, Allen Ludden, were familiar, urbane visitors to America's living rooms – especially when he hosted the game show Password and she appeared as his gracious guest player. Ludden died in 1981, and she never remarried. Watch a clip here.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show: According to White, the character of Sue Ann Nivens was imagined as a Betty White "type," only nasty. (White's a longtime friend of Moore.) She went on to win two Emmys for the part, which she played from 1973 to 1977. Watch a clip here.
The Golden Girls: For the NBC hit, which ran from 1985 to 1992, White basically inverted Sue Ann, going from a schemer to the profoundly, sometimes touchingly silly Rose. Another Emmy (she's won a total of six). Watch a clip here.
Ugly Betty: White, as herself, runs afoul of Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams) – a woman far crueler than Sue Ann – in an 2007 episode. Watch a clip here.
The Clueless Parody: For the 1996 MTV Movie Video Awards, White and Golden costars Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan teamed up for this great short sketch that re-imagined them in the classic '90s comedy. (Watch the clip above.)
Watch the SAG Awards on Jan. 23, live on TNT and TBS at 8 p.m. ET/PT – and catch up on all the news and style from the show on PEOPLE.com!