Betty Marion White Ludden (born January 17, 1922) is an American actress, comedian, author, and animal rights advocate. A pioneer of early television, White was one of the first women to exert control in front of and behind the camera, and the first woman to produce a sitcom (Life with Elizabeth), which contributed to her being named honorary Mayor of Hollywood in 1955. She is also widely known for her roles as Sue Ann Nivens on the CBS sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973–1977), Rose Nylund on the NBC sitcom The Golden Girls (1985–1992), and Elka Ostrovsky on the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland (2010–2015).
Betty Marion White
January 17, 1922
Oak Park, Illinois, U.S.
|Education||Beverly Hills Unified School District|
|Alma mater||Beverly Hills High School|
|Title||4th Mayor of Hollywood (Honorary)|
With an entertainment career spanning over nine decades, White was eight years old when she made her radio programming debut in 1930, working as a radio personality in Los Angeles under the guidance of disk jockey Al Jarvis. After making the transition to television, White became a staple panelist of American game shows, including Password, Match Game, Tattletales, To Tell the Truth, The Hollywood Squares and The $25,000 Pyramid; dubbed "the first lady of game shows", White became the first woman to receive the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host for the show Just Men! in 1983. She is also known for her appearances on The Bold and the Beautiful, Boston Legal, The Carol Burnett Show, and Saturday Night Live.
With a television career spanning over eight decades, White has worked longer in that medium than anyone else in the television industry, earning her a Guinness World Record in 2018. White has received eight Emmy Awards in various categories, three American Comedy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a Grammy Award. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and is a 1985 Television Hall of Fame inductee.
Betty Marion White was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on January 17, 1922. She has stated that Betty is her legal name and not a shortened version of Elizabeth. She is the only child of Christine Tess (née Cachikis; 1899–1985), a homemaker, and Horace Logan White (1899–1963), a lighting company executive. Her paternal grandfather was Danish and her maternal grandfather was Greek, with her other roots being English and Welsh (both of her grandmothers were Canadians).
White's family moved to Alhambra, California, in 1923 when she was a little over a year old, and later to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. To make extra money, her father would build radios (crystal radio) and sell them wherever he could. Since it was the height of the Depression, and hardly anyone had a sizable income, he would trade the radios in exchange for other goods, including dogs on some occasions.
White attended the Beverly Hills Unified School District in Beverly Hills, and Beverly Hills High School, graduating in 1939. Her interest in wildlife was sparked by family vacations to the Sierra Nevada. She initially aspired to a career as a forest ranger, but was unable to accomplish this because women were not allowed to serve as rangers at that time. Instead, White pursued an interest in writing. She wrote and played the lead in a graduation play at Horace Mann School, and discovered her interest in performing. Inspired by her idols Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, she decided to pursue a career as an actress.
1930s and 1940s
White's earliest work in entertainment came in 1930 when she was eight years old and appeared on an episode of a radio program called Empire Builders which was first broadcast on December 22, 1930.
White began her television career in 1939, three months after her high school graduation, when she and a classmate sang songs from The Merry Widow on an experimental television show. White found work modeling, and her first professional acting job was at the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre. When World War II broke out, she put her career on hold and volunteered for the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her assignment included the transportation of military supplies through California. She also participated in events for troops before they were deployed overseas.
After the war, White made rounds to movie studios looking for work, but was always turned down because she was "not photogenic". So then she started to look for radio jobs where being photogenic did not matter. Her first radio jobs included reading commercials and playing bit parts, and sometimes even doing crowd noises. She made about five dollars a show. She would do just about anything, like singing on a show for no pay or making an appearance on the local game show. She appeared on shows such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This Is Your FBI. She was then offered her own radio show, called The Betty White Show. In 1949, she began appearing as co-host with Al Jarvis on his daily live television variety show Hollywood on Television, originally called Al Jarvis' Make-Believe Ballroom on KFWB and on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles.
White began hosting the show by herself in 1952 after Jarvis's departure, spanning five and a half hours of live ad libitum television six days per week, over a continuous four-year span. In all of her various variety series over the years, White would sing at least a couple of songs during each broadcast. In 1951, she was nominated for her first Emmy Award as "Best Actress" on television, competing with such legendary stars as Judith Anderson, Helen Hayes, and Imogene Coca, but the award went to Gertrude Berg. This was the first award in the new Emmy category designated for women on television.
In 1952, the same year that she began hosting Hollywood on Television, White co-founded Bandy Productions with writer George Tibbles and Don Fedderson, a producer. The trio worked to create new shows using existing characters from sketches shown on Hollywood on Television. White, Fedderson, and Tibbles created the television comedy Life with Elizabeth, with White portraying the title character. The show was originally a live production on KCOP-TV in 1951, and won White a Los Angeles Emmy Award in 1952.
Life with Elizabeth was nationally syndicated from 1952 to 1955, allowing White to become one of the few women in television with full creative control in front of and behind the camera. The show was unusual for a sitcom in the 1950s because it was co-produced and owned by a twenty-eight-year-old woman who still lived with her parents. White said they did not worry about relevance in those days, and that usually the incidents were based on real life situations that happened to her, the actor who played Alvin, and the writer.
White also performed in television advertisement seen on live television in Los Angeles, including a rendition of the "Dr. Ross Dog Food" advertisement at KTLA during the 1950s. She guest starred on The Millionaire in the episode "The Virginia Lennart Story", as the owner of a small town diner that received an anonymous gift of $1,000,000, in 1956.
In 1954, she hosted and produced her own daily talk/variety show, The Betty White Show, on NBC (her second show to feature that title). Like her sitcom, she had creative control over the series, and was able to hire a female director. The show faced criticism for the inclusion of Arthur Duncan, an African-American performer, as a regular cast member. The criticism followed when NBC expanded the show nationally. Local Southern stations threatened to boycott unless Duncan was removed from the series. In response, White said "I'm sorry. Live with it," and gave Duncan more airtime. Initially a ratings success, the show repeatedly changed time slots and suffered lower viewership. By the end of the year, NBC quietly cancelled the series.
Following the end of Life with Elizabeth, she appeared as Vicki Angel on the ABC sitcom Date with the Angels from 1957 to 1958. As originally intended, the show, loosely based on the Elmer Rice play Dream Girl, would focus on Vicki's daydreaming tendencies. However, the sponsor was not pleased with the fantasy elements, and pressured to have them eliminated. "I can honestly say that was the only time I have ever wanted to get out of a show," White later said. The sitcom was a critical and ratings disaster, but ABC wouldn't allow White out of her contractual agreement and required her to fill the remaining thirteen weeks in their deal. Instead of a retooled version of the sitcom, White rebooted her old talk/variety show, The Betty White Show, which aired until her contract was fulfilled."
By the 1960s, White was a staple of network game shows and talk shows: including both Jack Paar and later Johnny Carson’s era of The Tonight Show. She made many appearances on the hit Password show as a celebrity guest from 1961 through 1975. She married the show's host, Allen Ludden, in 1963. She subsequently appeared on the show's three updated versions, Password Plus, Super Password, and Million Dollar Password, having been on versions of the game with five different hosts (Allen Ludden, Bill Cullen, Tom Kennedy, Bert Convy, and Regis Philbin). White made frequent game show appearances on What's My Line? (starting in 1955), To Tell the Truth (in 1961, 1990, and 2015), I've Got a Secret (in 1972–73), Match Game (1973–1982), and Pyramid (starting in 1982). Both Password and Pyramid were created by White's friend Bob Stewart.
She made her feature film debut as Kansas Senator Elizabeth Ames Adams in the 1962 drama, Advise & Consent. Although her performance was well received, it would be her only big-screen appearance for decades.
NBC offered her an anchor job on their flagship breakfast television show Today. She turned the offer down because she didn't want to move to New York (where Today is produced) permanently. The job eventually went to Barbara Walters. Through the 1950s and 1960s, White began a nineteen-year run as hostess and commentator on the annual Rose Parade broadcast on NBC (co-hosting with Roy Neal and later Lorne Greene), and appeared on a number of late-night talk shows, including Jack Paar's The Tonight Show, and other daytime game shows.
In 1973, White made several appearances in the fourth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as the "man-hungry" Sue Ann Nivens. The role garnered White her second and third Emmy Awards. Although considering the role a highlight of her career, she has described the character's image as "icky sweet", feeling she was the very definition of feminine passivity, owing to the fact she always satirized her own persona onscreen in just such a way.
A running gag was how Sue Anne's aggressive, cynical personality was the complete opposite of her relentlessly perky TV persona on the fictional WJM-TV show The Happy Homemaker. "We need somebody who can play sickeningly sweet, like Betty White," Moore herself suggested at a production meeting, which resulted in casting White herself. White won two Emmy Awards back-to-back for her role in the hugely popular series. On the death of Ed Asner on August 29, 2021, Betty White became the last surviving cast member of the Mary Tyler Moore show, even though she was the oldest.
In 1975, NBC replaced her as commentator hostess of the Tournament of Roses Parade, feeling that she identified too heavily with rival network CBS' The Mary Tyler Moore Show. White admitted to People that it was difficult "watching someone else do my parade", although she would soon start a ten-year run as hostess of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for CBS.
Following the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977, White was offered her own sitcom on CBS, her fourth entitled The Betty White Show (the first a quarter century earlier). She co-starred with John Hillerman and former Mary Tyler Moore co-star Georgia Engel, but it was canceled in 1978, after only one season.
White appeared several times on The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson appearing in many sketches, and began guest-starring in a number of television movies and television miniseries, including With This Ring, The Best Place to Be, Before and After, and The Gossip Columnist.
In 1983, White became the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Game Show Host, for the NBC entry Just Men! Due to the amount of work she has done on them, she has been deemed the "First Lady of Game Shows".
From 1983 to 1984, White had a recurring role playing Ellen Harper Jackson on the series Mama's Family, along with future Golden Girls co-star Rue McClanahan. White had originated this character in a series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show in the 1970s. When Mama's Family was picked up in syndication after being canceled by NBC in 1984, White left the show (with the exception of one final appearance in the show's syndicated version in 1986).
In 1985, White scored her second signature role and the biggest hit of her career as the St. Olaf, Minnesota native Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. The series chronicled the lives of four widowed or divorced women in their "golden years" who shared a home in Miami. The Golden Girls, which also starred Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan, was immensely successful and ran from 1985 through 1992. White won one Emmy Award, for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series, for the first season of The Golden Girls and was nominated in that category every year of the show's run (the only cast member to receive that distinction – Getty was also nominated every year, but in the supporting actress category).
White was originally offered the role of Blanche in The Golden Girls, and Rue McClanahan was offered the role of Rose (the two characters being similar to roles they had played in Mary Tyler Moore and Maude, respectively). Jay Sandrich, the director of the pilot, suggested that since they had played similar roles in the past, they should switch roles, Rue McClanahan later said in a documentary on the series. White originally had doubts about her ability to play Rose, until the show's creator took her aside and told her not to play Rose as stupid but as someone "terminally naive, a person who always believed the first explanation of something." As with the Mary Tyler Moore show, Betty White was the oldest, and last surviving, cast member.
The Golden Girls ended in 1992 after Arthur announced her decision to depart the series. White, McClanahan, and Getty reprised their roles Rose, Blanche, and Sophia in the spin-off The Golden Palace. The series was short-lived, lasting only one season. In addition, White reprised her Rose Nylund character in guest appearances on the NBC shows Empty Nest and Nurses, both set in Miami.
After The Golden Palace ended, White guest-starred on a number of television programs including Suddenly Susan, The Practice, and Yes, Dear where she received Emmy nominations for her individual appearances. She won an Emmy in 1996 for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, appearing as herself on an episode of The John Larroquette Show. In that episode, titled "Here We Go Again", a parody on Sunset Boulevard, a diva-like White convinces Larroquette to help write her memoir. At one point Golden Girls co-stars McClanahan and Getty appear as themselves. Larroquette is forced to dress in drag as Bea Arthur, when all four appear in public as the "original" cast members. White comically envisions her Rose as the central character with the others as mere supporting players.
In December 2006, White joined the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful in the role of Ann Douglas (where she would make 22 appearances), the long-lost mother of the show's matriarch, Stephanie Forrester, played by Susan Flannery. She also began a recurring role in ABC's Boston Legal from 2005 to 2008 as the calculating, blackmailing gossip-monger Catherine Piper, a role she originally played as a guest star on The Practice in 2004.
White appeared several times on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson appearing in many sketches and returned to Password in its latest incarnation, Million Dollar Password, on June 12, 2008, (episode #3), participating in the Million Dollar challenge at the end of the show. On May 19, 2008, she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, taking part in the host's Mary Tyler Moore Show reunion special alongside every surviving cast member of the series. Beginning in 2007, White was featured in television commercials for PetMed Express, highlighting her interest in animal rights and welfare.
Also in 2009, the candy company Mars, Incorporated launched a global campaign for their Snickers bar; the campaign's slogan was: "You're not you when you're hungry". White appeared, alongside Abe Vigoda, in the company's advertisement for the candy during the 2010 Super Bowl XLIV. The advertisement became very popular, and won the top spot on the Super Bowl Ad Meter.
Following the success of the Snickers advertisement, a grassroots campaign on Facebook called "Betty White to Host SNL (Please)" began in January 2010. The group was approaching 500,000 members when NBC confirmed on March 11, 2010, that White would in fact host Saturday Night Live on May 8. The appearance made her, at age 88, the oldest person to host the show, beating Miskel Spillman, the winner of SNL's "Anybody Can Host" contest, who was 80 when she hosted in 1977. In her opening monologue, White thanked Facebook and joked that she "didn't know what Facebook was, and now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time." The appearance earned her a 2010 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, her seventh Emmy win overall.
In June 2010, White took on the role of Elka Ostrovsky the house caretaker on TV Land's original sitcom Hot in Cleveland along with Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. Hot in Cleveland was TV Land's first attempt at a first-run scripted comedy (the channel has rerun other sitcoms since its debut). White was only meant to appear in the pilot of the show but was asked to stay on for the entire series. In 2011, she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Elka, but lost to Julie Bowen for Modern Family. The series ran for six seasons, a total of 128 episodes, with the hour-long final episode airing on June 3, 2015.
White also starred in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of The Lost Valentine on January 30, 2011 (this presentation garnered the highest rating for a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation in the previous four years and according to the Nielsen Media Research TV rating service won first place in the prime time slot for that date.) and from 2012 to 2014, White hosted and executive produced Betty White's Off Their Rockers, in which senior citizens play practical jokes on the younger generation. For this show, she received three Emmy nominations.
A Betty White calendar for 2011 was published in late 2010. The calendar features photos from White's career and with various animals. She also launched her own clothing line on July 22, 2010, which features shirts with her face on them. All proceeds go to various animal charities she supports.
White's success continued in 2012 with her first Grammy Award for a spoken word recording for her bestseller If You Ask Me. She also won the UCLA Jack Benny Award for Comedy, recognizing her significant contribution to comedy in television, and was roast at the New York Friars Club.
A television special, Betty White's 90th Birthday Party, aired on NBC a day before her birthday on January 16, 2012. The show featured appearances of many stars with whom White has worked over the years, as well as a message from sitting president Barack Obama. In January 2013, NBC once again celebrated Betty White's birthday with a TV special featuring celebrity friends, including former president Bill Clinton; the special aired on February 5.
On August 18, 2018, White's career was celebrated in a PBS documentary called Betty White: First Lady of Television. The documentary was filmed over a period of ten years, and featured archived footage and interviews from colleagues and friends.
In 2019, White joined the voice cast of Pixar's Toy Story 4. She provided the voice of Bitey White, a toy tiger that was named after her. The other toys she shared a scene with were named and played by Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. White commented that "It was wonderful the way they incorporated our names into the characters ... And I'm a sucker for animals, so the tiger was perfect!"
While volunteering with the American Women's Voluntary Services, White met her first husband Dick Barker, a United States Army Air Forces aircraft pilot. After the war, the couple married and moved to Ohio where Barker owned a chicken farm. The marriage ended in divorce within the year, and White returned to Los Angeles to restart her career.
On June 14, 1963, White married television host and personality Allen Ludden, whom she had met on his game show Password as a celebrity guest in 1961, and her legal name was changed to Betty White Ludden. He proposed to White at least twice before she accepted. The couple appeared together in an episode of The Odd Couple featuring Felix's and Oscar's appearance on Password. Ludden appeared as a guest panelist on Match Game, with White sitting in the audience. (She was prompted to criticize one of Ludden's wrong answers on camera during an episode of Match Game '74.) The two appeared together on the Match Game panel in 1974, 1975 and 1980.
Allen Ludden died from stomach cancer on June 9, 1981, in Los Angeles. While they had no children together, she is a stepmother to three of his children from his first marriage to Margaret McGloin Ludden, who died of cancer in 1961. White has not remarried since Ludden's death. In an interview with Larry King, when asked whether she would remarry, she replied by saying "Once you've had the best, who needs the rest?"
White had a strained relationship with her The Golden Girls co-star Bea Arthur on and off the set of their television show, commenting that Arthur "was not that fond of me" and that "she found me a pain in the neck sometimes. It was my positive attitude – and that made Bea mad sometimes. Sometimes if I was happy, she'd be furious." After Arthur's death in 2009, White said, "I knew it would hurt, I just didn't know it would hurt this much." Despite their differences, The Golden Girls was a positive experience for both actresses and they had great mutual respect for each other. Bea Arthur would often insist on waiting to leave for lunch until all four (White, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty, and she) had finished their work and could leave together.
White first met Lucille Ball while working on the short-lived sitcom Date With the Angels, which was filmed on The Culver Studios lot where I Love Lucy was also filmed. The two quickly struck up a friendship over their accomplishments in taking on the male dominated television business of the '50s. They relied on one another through divorce, illness, personal loss, and even competed against one another on various game shows.
In a 2011 interview, White said that she always knew her close friend Liberace was gay and that she sometimes accompanied him to premieres. A supporter of gay rights, White said that "If a couple has been together all that time – and there are gay relationships that are more solid than some heterosexual ones – I think it's fine if they want to get married. I don't know how people can get so anti-something. Mind your own business, take care of your affairs, and don't worry about other people so much".
Mary Tyler Moore
Mary Tyler Moore and her husband Grant Tinker were close friends with White and Ludden. When Valerie Harper left The Mary Tyler Moore Show, producers felt the show needed another female character, and so created Sue Ann Nivens. Nivens was described as an "icky sweet Betty White type.” In a 2010 The Interviews: An Oral History of Television interview, Moore explained that producers, aware of Moore and White's friendship, were initially hesitant to audition White for the role, for fear that if she hadn't been right, it would create awkwardness between the two.
In her 2011 book If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White writes about her friendship with famed author John Steinbeck. White's husband Allen Ludden attended the same school as Steinbeck's wife Elaine Anderson Steinbeck. The couples became close friends, and Steinbeck gave an early draft of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to Ludden for his birthday.
White is a pet enthusiast and an animal health advocate who works with animal organizations, including the Los Angeles Zoo Commission, The Morris Animal Foundation, African Wildlife Foundation, and Actors & Others for Animals. Her interest in animal rights and welfare began in the early 1970s while she was both producing and hosting the syndicated series, The Pet Set, which spotlighted celebrities and their pets.
As of 2009, White is the president emerita of the Morris Animal Foundation, where she has served as a trustee of the organization since 1971. She has been a member of the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association since 1974. Additionally, White served the association as a Zoo Commissioner for eight years.
According to the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Garden's ZooScape Member Newsletter, White hosted "History on Film" from 2000 to 2002. White donated nearly $100,000 to the zoo in the month of April 2008 alone.
In September 2011, she teamed up with English singer Luciana to produce a remix of her song "I'm Still Hot". The song was released digitally on September 22 and the video later premiered on October 6. It was made for a campaign for a life settlement program, The Lifeline. White served as a judge alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Wendy Diamond for the American Humane's Hero Dog Awards airing on The Hallmark Channel on November 8, 2011.
Achievements and honors
White has won five Primetime Emmy Awards, two Daytime Emmy Awards (including the 2015 Daytime Emmy for Lifetime Achievement), and received a Los Angeles Emmy Award in 1952. White is the only woman to have received an Emmy in all performing comedic categories, and also holds the record for longest span between Emmy nominations for performances—her first was in 1951 and her most recent was in 2011, a span of 60 years. She has also won three American Comedy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990), and two Viewers for Quality Television Awards. She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1995 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at Hollywood Boulevard alongside the star of her late husband Allen Ludden.
White was the recipient of The Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters Golden Ike Award and the Genii Award from the Alliance for Women in Media in 1976. The American Comedy Awards awarded her the award for Funniest Female in 1987 as well as the list of lifetime achievement awards in 1990.
The American Veterinary Medical Association awarded White with its Humane Award in 1987 for her charitable work with animals. The City of Los Angeles further honored her for her philanthropic work with animals in 2006 with a bronze commemorative plaque near the Gorilla Exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. The City of Los Angeles named her "Ambassador to the Animals" at the dedication ceremony.
She was formally inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences list of halls and walks of fame in 1995. In 2009, White received the TCA Career Achievement Award from the Television Critics Association.
In September 2009, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) announced plans to honor White with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award at the 16th Screen Actors Guild Awards. Actress Sandra Bullock presented White with the award on January 23, 2010, at the ceremony, which took place at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. She is a Kentucky Colonel. In 2009, White and her now-deceased The Golden Girls cast mates Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty were awarded Disney Legends awards. Betty was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in December 2010. In 2010, she was chosen as the Associated Press's Entertainer of the Year. On November 9, 2010, the USDA Forest Service, along with Smokey Bear, made Betty White an honorary forest ranger, fulfilling her lifelong dream. White said in previous interviews that she wanted to be a forest ranger as a little girl but that women were not allowed to do that then. When White received the honor, more than one-third of Forest Service employees were women.
In January 2011, White received a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series for her role as Elka Ostrovsky in Hot in Cleveland. The show itself was also nominated for an award as Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series, but lost to the cast of Modern Family. She won the same award again in 2012, and has received a third nomination.
In October 2011, White was awarded an honorary degree and white doctors coat by Washington State University at the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association's centennial gala in Yakima, Washington.
A 2011 poll conducted by Reuters and Ipsos revealed that White was considered the most popular and most trusted celebrity among Americans, beating the likes of Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock, and Tom Hanks.
In 2017 after 70 years, White was invited to become a member of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. At 95 this made her the oldest new member at the time.
White has published several books during her career. In August 2010, she entered a deal with G.P. Putnam's Sons to produce two more books, the first of which, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), was released in 2011. In February 2012, White received her first Grammy Award ("Best Spoken Word Recording") for the audio recording of the book.
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