John Paul Filo, CBS
Betty White appears on "Million Dollar Password."

After more than 18 years of writing about TV and interviewing hundreds of celebrities, I don't get star-struck often.

There are a few exceptions, however. Generally, it's people I've loved for decades. And at the top of that list is Betty White. I've never interviewed anybody nicer, more charming or more talented.

Nor have I met a star who acts less like one.

I first fell in love with White when I was a kid and my mom watched "Password." White, a frequent guest on the show hosted by her husband, Allen Ludden, was bright and funny.

Almost exactly 27 years after his death, White returns to "Million Dollar Password" (Thursday, 7 p.m., Ch. 2), and host Regis Philbin couldn't be more pleased.

"We're thrilled to have her back. She was just great," he said. "She was a wonderful game player years ago and has lost none of the smarts and the charm to make her click again.

"She was just so much fun. And we reminisced a little bit about the days when Allen was with us and all the fun they had. I knew them as a couple back in the '60s and '70s, so there was a lot to reminisce about."

Even at the age of 86, White is still a "Password" pro.

"She is a remarkable player," Philbin said. "She has great rapport with whoever she's playing with."

Familiar to fans from her hundreds of appearances on game shows, half a dozen TV series (including "Mary Tyler Moore" and "The Golden Girls"), hundreds of guest-starring roles and her work on behalf of animals, White is sort of an American institution.

"People feel like they know me — like I'm one of their friends," White said in a one-on-one phone interview yours truly did with her almost 17 years ago. "I think that's wonderful."

Appearing before TV critics last year, White had lost none of her charm. And, while she was promoting a PBS special about the early days of television, she made it clear she planned to be a part of television's future, too.

"I don't know what retirement is. ... I just can't imagine what retiring would be, unless it was with somebody I cared a great deal about," she said.

It's pretty much the same answer she gave me when I asked her about retirement back in 1991.

"What was that word again?" she replied with a laugh. "I'm going to die in harness. You couldn't drive me away with a stick."

Thank goodness.

· · · · ·

In 1995, White co-starred in the mercifully short-lived ABC sitcom "Maybe This Time," playing the mother of Marie Osmond's character. Oddly enough, the network had two sitcoms that fall headlined by women who were native Utahns.

The other was "Roseanne."

"She's from Utah?" an oblivious Osmond asked. "I didn't know that."

"I didn't know she'd be allowed in," White quipped.

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Harvey Korman, who passed away recently, may have been best known for breaking up during sketches on "The Carol Burnett Show." White, a frequent guest on the show, said none of that was rehearsed.

"So many people ask me, '(Aren't) those break-ups between Harv and Tim all planted and planned?"' White said. "Oh boy, were they planted and planned! This evil person on my right (Tim Conway) would come out, and they would rehearse right up to show time.

"And then Tim would come out with either changing maybe a half word or an inflection or a piece of wardrobe — maybe he would turn his tie over, nothing important — and it would put Harvey away."

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