Who’s that girl?: Betty Furness

Betty Furness began her career as a movie starlet and ended it as an influential expert in consumer issues and a reporter for The Today Show. The story of how she got there is an interesting one, to say the least, marked by Furness’ self-professed inability to say “no” to any job that crossed her path.

Born as Elizabeth Mary Furness in 1916, the lovely young woman started out as a teenage model before moving to Hollywood and signing a contract with RKO in 1932. The studio put her right to work. In her first film that year, Thirteen Women, she appeared opposite Irene Dunne, but her scenes were ultimately cut from the movie (strangely enough, the same thing happened the following year when she was cast with Dunne in No Other Woman). Her screen debut came with the release of Renegades of the West, a minor Western starring Tom Keene, in November 1932.

The following year was the most prolific of Furness’ movie career, as she appeared in more than a dozen films, including an uncredited role in Flying Down to Rio, the first movie to pair Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Incidentally, Furness would go on to appear opposite Fred and Ginger again in 1936’s Swing Time, this time in a full-fledged supporting role as Astaire’s fiance, Margaret.

Furness and Astaire, after the infamous “Bojangles of Harlem” number from SWING TIME

 

In 1935, Furness starred in her highest-profile film to date when she was once again cast opposite Dunne in Magnificent Obsession, playing Dunne’s stepdaughter. This time, her scenes remained intact in the final film. That same year, Furness also appeared with popular funny couple George Burns and Gracie Allen in Here Comes Cookie (1935), in which she played Allen’s flighty younger sister. But by the end of the decade, after performing in almost three dozen films, Furness found it difficult to score additional acting jobs, and her appearances tapered off. She made one movie in 1939, the B-picture North of Shanghai, before returning to New York to seek roles on the Broadway stage. And by the end of the 1940s, Furness moved on to the next phase of her career when she embraced the fledgling medium of television.

Starting off as the host of a show called Fashions, Coming and Becoming in 1945, Furness segued into guest appearances on series such as Studio One and ABC Showcase. However, it wasn’t long before the actress became a noted advertising spokesperson, and it was almost by accident. During filming one day in 1948, Furness volunteered to substitute for another actor in a Westinghouse spot, and the company, thrilled with her performance, signed her as their new “Westinghouse girl.” It was a role she would maintain for the next twelve years on radio and on television. In the meantime, Furness continued acting in a number of television series, starring in her own daytime talk show Meet Betty Furness, and, perhaps most infamously, a 1951 show with the hilariously cumbersome title Your Kaiser Dealer Presents Kaiser-Frazer “Adventures in Mystery” Starring Betty Furness in “Byline.” She also made numerous appearances on the popular game shows What’s My Line? and I’ve Got a Secret.

Furness prepping for a Westinghouse commercial in 1952, from LIFE magazine.

 

After parting ways with Westinghouse, Furness, a vocal Democrat, was recruited by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs in 1967. The post was not a mere title gift-wrapped for a celebrity; Furness had multiple responsibilities in her role, also serving as the chairman of the President’s Committee on Consumer Interests and head of the Consumer Advisory Council. At first, Furness’ appointment was met with skepticism, as her identity as the Westinghouse spokeswoman was so ingrained in the public consciousness. But the actress adapted easily to the role of politician and quickly became an expert in her new field, proving the naysayers wrong. Furness later served as the director of Consumer Affairs for New York City and was named the first chairman of the state’s Consumer Protection Board in 1970.

The following year, Furness left politics to return to television, this time as a reporter focusing on the topic of consumer affairs for WNBC in New York–a job that eventually led to her hiring by NBC’s national morning talk show, The Today Show, in 1976. According to the Paley Center for Media, Furness thus became the first full-time consumer advocate on television–a role she relished thoroughly. She also hosted a local television show in New York called Buyline: Betty Furness; that show won a Peabody Award for excellence in television in 1977. Furness remained a correspondent for Today for sixteen years, building a reputation as a fierce consumer advocate in the process, until she was let go in 1992. Her firing from Today was considered an example of ageism and raised ire among Furness’ fans as well as media watchdogs.

Furness was married four times–her first husband, whom she divorced in 1943, was five-time Academy Award-winning composer and songwriter Johnny Green, with whom she had her only child, a daughter named Babbie Green (who followed in her father’s footsteps as a singer/songwriter). Furness’ granddaughter, Liza Snyder, later became a television star in her own right, headlining the 2000-2006 CBS comedy series Yes, Dear.

Furness passed away in 1994 after a bout with stomach cancer. She was seventy-eight years old.

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5 thoughts on “Who’s that girl?: Betty Furness

  1. This is a wonderful post! I am definitely adding her to my list of “People I’d like to meet if I were able to travel back in time”!

  2. I’ve been loving your ‘Who’s that Girl?’ posts – well researched and affectionate. Brilliantly done – who’d have thought the lovely co-star from Swing Time who wasn’t Ginger Rogers would go on to enjoy such a diverse career? Good to read that it all ended well, relatively speaking.

  3. I remember her from her Westinghouse commercials when I was just a little guy. She was quite glamorous for the time, which was a far more glamorous time than today. Ah, the early days of television!

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