Sue Ann Nivens

Sue Ann on the air as "The Happy Homemaker".

Sue Ann Nivens was a fictional character on the long-running situation comedy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was played by television perennial Betty White.


The role of Sue Ann Nivens was not specifically written for White, but script #73 of the series ("The Lars Affair", originally aired September 15, 1973)[1] called for an "icky sweet Betty White type". The show's casting director decided to approach the star herself, who with her then husband Allen Ludden was already good friends with Mary Tyler Moore and her then husband, the show's producer Grant Tinker. (In a 2011 Archive of American Television interview, Moore explained that producers, aware of Moore and White's friendship, were initially hesitant to audition White for the role, the fear being that if she hadn't been right, that it would create awkwardness between the two.) In playing Sue Ann, the actress played up this image as a contrasting cover for a backbiting, sexually voracious nature.[2] This first appearance was in the sitcom's fourth season.[3]

The Happy Homemaker (and homewrecker)

Sue Ann Nivens was the relentlessly perky star of The Happy Homemaker on Mary Richards' fictional WJM-TV in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her program delivered advice to housewives on cooking and decorating. She chose unusual and sometimes ludicrous themes for some episodes, such as "What's all this fuss about famine?" and "A salute to fruit". Nivens was a perfectionist; she once confessed she would rather flush her Veal Prince Orloff down a toilet than serve it reheated. She was also full of helpful hints for all occasions and always ready to make lemons into lemonade; she once suggested buying colorful, happy goldfish as companions for the infirm and then, when the goldfish died, using them as fertilizer for houseplants.

Although Sue Ann presented an image of a sweet, perfect wife and homemaker on-screen, she was actually sardonic, man-obsessed, and very competitive, with a tumultuous home life off-screen. Always with her trademark dimpled smile, she was cruel and snide toward people she did not like or considered a threat.


With Mary and Phyllis

Sue Ann's debut on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was as a guest at one of Mary Richards' famously disastrous parties. At the conclusion of the party, Lars Lindstrom (the never-seen husband of Mary's friend and landlady, Phyllis Lindstrom) gave Sue Ann a ride home. Phyllis subsequently realized Lars and Sue Ann were having an affair because Lars came home with cleaner clothes than when he left. When Phyllis threatened to "rip Sue Ann's face off", Mary was forced to mediate between Phyllis and Sue Ann to end the affair.

Eventually, Sue Ann and Mary became somewhat friendly, or perhaps were friendly adversaries. She often called Mary "Dear, sweet, naive Mary"; and she, along with Georgette Franklin, helped to fill the void when Phyllis and Rhoda left the show for their own spin-off shows. Nonetheless, Sue Ann's relationship with Mary could be competitive, as Mary, who was younger and more attractive, more easily drew the attention of men than Sue Ann could.

With others

Lou and Sue Ann. Lou has just given her the bad news that her program was cancelled.

In the series final season, Sue Ann's Happy Homemaker show was canceled because of low ratings. She still was under contract to WJM, but would only continue to get paid if she worked at the station – and, after being assigned to a series of menial positions (recording station break announcements, appearing as foil to a pair of puppets on a children's show), Lou coerced Mary into hiring her as a production assistant on the Six O'Clock News.

In the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Sue Ann was fired, as was almost everyone in the WJM newsroom. She immediately bounced back, however, finding work as a travelling companion and "sort of a practical nurse" to a wealthy, elderly gentleman.

Impact on Betty White

Sue Ann Nivens exhibited a new dimension to White's talent. Often typecast as a sometimes cloying, gentle, innocent or seemingly demure woman who would occasionally say shockingly risque things the meaning of which she was unaware, White was able to distinguish herself as an actress from her body of work. Reflecting on the role, White has said, "Of course, I loved Sue Ann. She was so rotten. You can’t get much more rotten than the neighborhood nymphomaniac."[4] The role earned White two Emmy Awards as Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (1975 and 1976), with a further nomination following in the show's final season, 1977.[5] Asked about her favorites among her many awards to date, she cites these won for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.[6] White gives a great deal of credit for the role's success to the scripts, speaking of being "blessed with the kind of writing on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and [the later series] The Golden Girls," claiming as well, "If it isn't on the page, we can't do anything about it."[7]

On The Golden Girls, debuting eight years later, White was originally cast as man-hungry Blanche; and Rue McClanahan, the befuddled Vivian on Maude, was cast as naive Rose. The two actresses realized how similar their new roles were to their previous ones and, at the suggestion of veteran comedy director Jay Sandrich, approached the producers about switching roles. (White quotes Sandrich as saying, "If Betty plays another man-hungry neighborhood [nymphomaniac], they're going to equate it with Sue Ann and think it's just a continuation of that.")[8] The producers agreed, and the show went on to great success.[9]

Allowing White and McClanahan to swap roles was what made Bea Arthur decide to take part in The Golden Girls. McClanahan recalled in an interview, "Bea told me, 'Rue, I don't want to do a show where Maude and Vivian meet Sue Ann Nivens', to which I said, 'No, Bea. I'm going to play Nivens and Betty White is going to play Vivian.'" Bea Arthur was then said to reply, "Interesting!"[10]


Further reading

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