July 25, 1923 – Estelle Getty:
Age does not bring you wisdom, age brings you wrinkles.
The Golden Girls made its debut in 1985, yet the series still seems fresh in reruns thanks to great writing, crisp directing and comic talents and four funny females. It was created by Susan Harris, and originally aired on NBC from 1985 to 1992, with a total of 180 half-hour episodes spanning seven seasons. The show starred Beatrice Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty as four older women who share a home in Miami. The series received critical acclaim throughout most of its run and won several awards including two Emmys, and each of the four stars received an Emmy, making it one of only three sitcoms in the award’s history to achieve this. It also won three Golden Globe Awards. The series ranked in the Top-10 highest-rated programs for six of its seven seasons.
The role of Sophia Petrillo was the first of the four roles to be cast. Getty auditioned and won the role of the feisty mother of character Dorothy Zbornak. She was cast, in no small part (so to speak), because of the rave reviews she received in her role in Harvey Fierstein‘s Torch Song Trilogy (1981). She played the role of for 117 performances Off-Broadway and 1230 performances on Broadway, and then did the Los Angles run. Afterwards, Getty had returned to NYC, but gained permission from her manager to return to California in early 1985. Getty figured it would be her last chance to find television or film work. She decided she could always return home to New York City if she was unsuccessful.
Getty impressed by the casting director when she auditioned the role of the grandmother for a Family Ties episode. She didn’t get the part but impressed the show’s, the casting director who remembered her when casting The Golden Girls. She showed up to read for the role of Sophia dressed as the character.
Getty went through a three-hour transformation to become Sophia. She wore heavy make-up, thick glasses, and a white wig to look the part. The character of Sophia was dreamed up by the creators as a way enhance the idea that three retirement-aged women could be young. Getty made our three women into girls and made it seem like it could be a contemporary, young show. In real life she was a year younger than Arthur who played Dorothy, her daughter.
Getty continuously battled stage fright. She said that working with major stars, such as Arthur and White, made her even more nervous. At times, she froze on camera while filming.
Playing a sharp-tongued, wise-cracking octogenarian, Getty was nominated for an Emmy seven years in a row. The fact that she won only once, in 1988, following a Golden Globe in 1986, might be a metaphor for her persistence. She wrote in her memoir If I Knew Then What I Know Now (1988):
…after 50 years in the business I’m an overnight success.
The Golden Girls aired many LGBTQ-themed episodes. The show introduced a trans man as a Miami politician in season three, showed Sophia come to terms with her son’s cross-dressing in a heartbreaking funeral episode in season six, and went zany with people mistaking Blanche and Dorothy as a lesbian couple in season seven. The show even tackled issues that faced the LGBTQ community, like HIV/AIDS and hospital visitation rights. Truly landmark stuff for the 1980s.
There were fully drawn gay characters on The Golden Girls too, such as the memorable Lois Nettelton as Jean, Dorothy’s lesbian college friend, portrayed as warm and intelligent, and Monte Markham‘s Clayton Hollingsworth, Blanche’s younger brother, who is introduced as ”just as great looking, charming and irresistible to men” as his sister.
On The Golden Girls, Getty, who stood less than 5 feet tall, and Bea Arthur, 5 foot 10 inches, played a mother and daughter who were nominally of Italian background, but in comic reality, they were both Jewish. Getty often played the archetypical Jewish mother, specializing in passive-aggressive verbal warfare, unafraid to take advantage of having suffered a stroke to force reluctant sympathy from her daughter.
She was totally convincing in her white wig, large glasses, and dowdy clothes, providing a one-woman chorus for the zany activities of the three younger women, and the perfect foil for Arthur’s own heavy sarcasm. She was totally believable. Getty:
I’ve played mothers to heroes and mothers to zeroes. I’ve played Irish mothers, Jewish mothers, Italian mothers, Southern mothers, mothers in plays by Neil Simon and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. I’ve played mother to everyone but Attila the Hun.
She wasn’t far off: her list of mothers also included Cher‘s mother in the The Mask (1985), Barry Manilow‘s in Copacabana (1985) and who can forget Sylvester Stallone‘s mom in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992).
She was born Estelle Scheer in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her parents were immigrants from Poland who started a glass business. Getty wanted to become an actor bug after the first time she went to a Vaudeville show, and by her teens was acting in Yiddish theatre and working as a stand-up in summer resorts in Borscht Belt in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
In 1947 she married Arthur Gettleman, who had taken over her parents’ business, and she took his last name for her stage name. She supported herself working as a secretary, dashing to auditions during her lunch breaks. At one company, Getty writes:
…the first day I came to work, I had an audition, and I said, ‘Can I go to my lunch at 10 o’clock?’ The next day I had to go somewhere else. I said, ‘Can I take my lunch at 2.30?’ The next day I asked if I could take lunch at 11 o’clock.
Her boss told her she possessed the strangest eating habits of anyone he’d ever met.
For the next 30 years she worked Off-Broadway, in regional theatre, and in occasional small roles on television. Her break came after she saw playwright and actor Fierstein’s International Stud in 1978. She loved the play, went backstage to meet Fierstein, and said: “If you’re such a hotshot playwright, why don’t you write a play with a mother in it, and I’ll play her?” They became friends, and Fierstein did just that, producing Widows and Children First, which became the other sections of his acclaimed Torch Song Trilogy. “I am the mother!” was Getty’s opening line in the 1981 premiere, and she and the play were both a smash. She would play Fierstein’s mother for five years, yet she lost the film role to Anne Bancroft.
Getty played Sophia in two spin-offs, Empty Nest and The Golden Palace, working until 1995, then her health began to decline. She was suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, a progressive brain disease often mistaken for Alzheimer’s. She was unable to participate in a Golden Girls reunion show in 2003.
In 1991, Getty helped to care for her 29-year-old nephew who was near death, suffering from the final stages of AIDS. His parents lived in England and his friends were no longer able to care for him, so Getty had him flown to California and admitted to hospice care. He died in January 1992.
In 2000, Getty stopped making public appearances. Golden Girls cast members who attempted to talk to her on the phone or in person found that she couldn’t remember them, or anything about the show. Bea Arthur said that even during production of the series, Getty had so much trouble remembering her lines that they should have known something was wrong.
Getty died of complications from Lewy Body Dementia three days before her 85th birthday. She is now appearing at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.