Dorothy and Blanche and Rose and Sophia: The Golden Girls

Picture it…

Burbank, California 1984. NBC is airing a special to promote their upcoming 1984-1985 season. On stage are Selma Diamond, who played a very funny, chain-smoking bailiff on Night Court, and Doris Roberts, then a regular on Remington Steele. The two “mature” actors were tasked with promoting Miami Vice, which they coined “Miami Nice” for their humorous exchange about old people living in Miami. Watching them was NBC Senior VP of Entertainment, Warren Littlefield who was blown away by the two women on stage. Littlefield immediately thought that a situation comedy featuring older women would be hilarious and… well, he didn’t make the big bucks for nothing. His idea came to fruition thanks to the show’s creator, writer Susan Harris and it eventually became The Golden Girls, a classic sitcom from the 1980s featuring four of the greatest comedic actors ever assembled.

Bea Arthur as Dorothy Petrillo, Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux, Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo-- Photo by: Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank
Bea Arthur as Dorothy Petrillo, Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux, Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo– Photo by: Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank

The Golden Girls, is about four mature women who live together. That alone is enough to make the show unique in our youth-centric culture, but it is much more than that. Each character in the show is unique in her own right. Blanche Devereaux, the owner of the house in which the four women live, is a man-hungry Southern belle. Rose Nylund is a naive and simple farm girl from Minnesota. Dorothy Zbornak, a smart and slightly bitter substitute teacher who cares for her opinionated pip of a Sicilian mother, Sophia. The women came together out of necessity, three are widowed and one divorced, and for seven seasons made us laugh with a vitality most 20-year-olds don’t possess. The misadventures of these four women range from the outrageous to the deeply moving as they tackled such subjects as AIDS, organ donation, menopause, being gay, and Alzheimer’s. Even illegal immigration was given a heartfelt treatment on The Golden Girls. You may have seen that topic in the news of late.

The most enjoyable parts about The Golden Girls are the relationships between the women. Most, if not all, episodes feature a scene when the women gather around the kitchen table to talk, seek advice, or to toss insults at each other. When the four get on each other’s nerves, which happens quite often, you must prepare for hilarity. But these scenes, as is the series itself, are also often poignant and adult. The writing and the performances are so perfectly in sync on The Golden Girls, the chemistry so natural, that this fan feels as though she were sitting at that table too. They are friends and family and they love and hate as we do in real life. Except that Sophia, Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche are much more fun than anyone I know.

The Golden Girls at the kitchen table

To play the Golden Girls NBC chose la creme de la creme of comedy, actors with superb timing and more than their share of entertainment gravitas. This too makes this sitcom unique. Beatrice (Bea) Arthur plays Dorothy Zbornak, Betty White plays Rose Nylund, Rue McClanahan plays Blanche Devereaux, and Estelle Getty plays Sophia Petrillo. These four women have rightfully gone into the pantheon of TV greatness alongside the likes of Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel. These are the golden foursome of The Golden Girls, my choice for The Favorite Foursome Blogathon. Together the Golden Girls made TV magic, but individually they brought unbridled talent to one of the best-written sitcoms in history.

“I have your Sophia”

One of the NBC players responsible for getting The Golden Girls on the air attended a performance of Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway. Upon seeing Estelle Getty, who originated the role of Mrs. Beckoff, mother to Harvey Fierstein‘s character in the play, the executive knew he had struck gold. “I have your Sophia,” he yelled excitedly into the telephone to a colleague in Burbank. Sophia was set to be the cantankerous, but hilarious character who would be mother to another character in the sitcom now in its planning stage. Estelle Getty was flown to California, read for the part and was the first actor hired for The Golden Girls.

Estelle Getty and Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy
Estelle Getty and Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy

“Estelle Getty’s career goes back as far as she can remember…” That’s how Getty’s biography began in the Playbill for Torch Song Trilogy, which proved a career breakthrough. Indeed, she was not kidding. Estelle, a New York native, dreamed of acting her entire life. She recalled in an interview that when the first vaudeville act appeared on stage at the Academy of Music on 14th Street in New York, she knew she wanted to act. Estelle was four years old.

Getty performed on stage for decades, tried stand-up comedy, and made numerous guest appearances on TV shows and a few movies before landing the role in Trilogy for which she received a Drama Desk nomination. In between acting roles, Estelle married, raised two sons and worked as a secretary, sometimes foregoing promotions in case an important acting role presented itself.

Estelle Getty considered herself lucky in her chosen profession despite most people’s estimation that she hit the big time late in her career. She was ever cognizant of the fact that the great majority of actors never get such an opportunity and made the best of it by becoming one of TV’s most popular actors of the 1980s.

Getty’s portrayal of Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls is a scene-stealing tour de force. Allowed to push the envelope as far as most characters had ever been able to do thanks to Sophia’s advanced age, she slings insults with great zeal, pinpoint accuracy and breakneck speed. Her excuse for the biting words often directed at her own daughter, Dorothy, and roommates Blanche and Rose, was, “I’m old. I’m supposed to be colorful.” And that she was.

“Jealousy is a very ugly thing, Dorothy and … so are you in anything backless.”

Thanks to the talents of the much younger, much more soft-spoken and shy Estelle, Sophia’s every utterance is a gem and the stories of her early days in Sicily are legendary. She often talks about ties to the Mob and Vendettas, claims to have been a part of famous happenings such as the St. Valentines Day Massacre, and to have had affairs with Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, and Winston Churchill among others. The stories always begin with an enthusiastic “Picture it…” They are also mostly made up to teach a lesson. And they are always hilarious.

Picture it… Sophia telling one of her Sicily stories

Estelle Getty was nominated for a Primetime Emmy every year The Golden Girls was on the air winning once in 1988. She also received a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Sophia along with several other awards and recognitions.

Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo
Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo

“I’m not one to blow my own Vertubenflugen.”

The character of Sophia Petrillo was hired first, but everyone involved in getting The Golden Girls off the ground knew they wanted Betty White to be a part of it. A TV legend by 1985, White’s career in the medium was already decades long then. Today she is an institution and the only Golden Girl we still have with us.

Betty White’s first foray into a TV comedy series was in Life With Elizabeth, which ran from 1952 to 1955. White starred opposite Del Moore and also developed and produced the show, which were rare roles for women at the time. Life With Elizabeth was followed by another comedy, Date with the Angels, which last two seasons. That went off the air, but Betty White never did. She guested on comedies and on The Tonight Show  with Jack Paar numerous times. In addition, Betty was a regular on game shows. She met her third husband, Allen Ludden, to whom she has referred as the love of her life, on Password. I watch them on that via YouTube now and again and always enjoy the exchanges and guest stars. Ah, the good old days!

Betty White and Allan Ludden with a contestant on Password in 1967
Betty White and Allan Ludden with a contestant on Password in 1967

Although she was a familiar face on television by then, Betty White had somehow transitioned from an actor to a “television personality,” as she has described it. That changed in 1973, however, when she was cast as sharp-tongued, sex-starved, happy homemaker, Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I’m not sure I can put into words how much I adore Betty’s turn as Nivens. All I can say is that it takes a unique talent to join the likes of the Moore show with its superbly talented cast and writing and make it even funnier. Betty White did just that and took home two Emmy Awards for her work on that series.

Many more TV series and guest spots followed, which served to keep Betty White in the public’s mind as a popular entertainer and comedian. That changed once again when she was hired to play Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, which proved a massive hit and which ensured renewed fame for the actor as one of television’s top comedic talents. As described by Betty, Rose is a “terminally naive” widow from St. Olaf, Minnesota. Warm-hearted, caring and clueless about most things, Rose also has a mean competitive spirit and thanks to Betty White, could sing and dance with the best of them.

Orphaned at a young age, Rose was adopted by Gunter and Alma Lindstrom and raised on their family farm in the Norwegian farming town of St. Olaf. Rose grew up convinced that Bob Hope was her biological father and she studied Pig Latin in school. Her parents were strict and Rose remained innocent in the ways of love until she met and married Charlie Nylund with whom she had five children.

Unlike Sophia, Rose is sweet and innocent, although she holds her own if pressed and can mutter a hearty insult now and again. Like Petrillo, Rose has a proclivity to tell stories. Hers, however, are about St. Olaf. In almost every, if not all, episodes, we get to know a bit about the odd inhabitants of the farm town told with aplomb no matter how insane the stories and people are. Nearly every situation Rose and her friends encounter brings up a hilarious, if irrelevant, memory about life in St. Olaf and the subject of which could be either person or animal. These stories always caused hilarious responses from her roommates as well. Here is one of the shorter ones…

“Mrs. Gunderson, our grade school teacher, was the nicest woman you’d ever want to meet! As the years went by, she got her facts a little confused. In biology class, she started telling kids that the human body was made up of 80 percent Ovaltine. While we were studying World War I, she told us mustard gas was something you got from eating too many hot dogs. That’s why, to this day in St. Olaf, everyone celebrates  the 4th of July with a thin omelet on a bun.”

Rose telling one of her St. Olaf stories
Rose telling one of her St. Olaf stories

Apparently St. Olaf also had a way of changing popular idioms and making them their own, which Rose repeats with pride, but leaves everyone else scratching their heads. An example would be, “You know what they say: You can lead a herring to water, but you have to walk really fast or he’ll die.”

Most impressive to me is not the time Rose Nylund spends volunteering for numerous charities, which she does, but rather the ease with which she uses various words used only by St. Olafians. These would be used either as insults or interspersed in her stories – “Oh, blow it out your tubenburbles!” is one example. It’s no wonder Betty White was nominated for four Golden Globes, seven times for an Emmy with one win, and received numerous other honors and recognitions for her portrayal of Rose Nylund.

Betty White as Rose Nylund

Betty White has been nominated 21 times for an Emmy Award during her stellar career, which is impressive enough, but when you consider that her first nomination was in 1951 and her last sixty-three years later… I mean, it’s jaw dropping. In a medium that has brought us some of the greatest entertainers that ever lived, one most of us cannot live without, Betty White is one of its most valuable treasures.

 “I’m jumpier than a virgin at a prison rodeo.”

Rue McClanahan finished reading the script of The Golden Girls‘ pilot and immediately called her agent. “I would love to play Blanche,” she said enthusiastically. “You should consider the part of Rose. They have Betty White in mind for Blanche,” the agent replied. And why shouldn’t they? White’s Sue Ann Nivens, a character similar to Blanche Devereaux in many ways, was one for the record books. “Oh, I don’t know what to do with Rose,” the disappointed McClanahan stated, but still went in to read for the character of Rose Nylund and the results were lackluster. She knew it and the powers that be knew it when someone suggested she take a few minutes to review the Blanche part in the script. When Rue returned she read for Blanche alongside the unsuspecting Betty White who was caught off guard when asked to read the part of Rose.  “Oh, Rose?” asked White, but she did it. Everyone knew immediately this is how it was supposed to be.

A native of Healdton, Oklahoma, Rue McClanahan made her stage debut in a 1957 production of Inherit the Wind in Pennsylvania. She appeared in numerous shows for the next decade and made her Broadway debut opposite Dustin Hoffman in the musical, Jimmy Shine in 1969. Meanwhile she also appeared in small roles in several movies and TV shows until she caught the attention of Norman Lear when she appeared as a guest in All In the Family .That lead to Rue’s regular stint as scatterbrained Vivian Cavender, next door neighbor and best friend to Maude Findlay in the series, Maude starring Bea Arthur.

Arthur and McClanahan in Maude
Arthur and McClanahan in Maude

After Maude went off the air in 1978, Rue McClanahan continued as a guest on every TV show imaginable. She was a regular on a few others like Mama’s Family wherein she played the title character’s Aunt Fran. Rue McClanahan’s greatest TV role, however, and the one she is best remembered for is Blanche Devereaux on The Golden Girls.

Like Betty White, who has always described Rose as naive rather than dumb, McClanahan always defended Blanche’s honor as well. She would usually say Blanche was a caring, honest woman, which is true – to a degree – but I don’t think those are the two adjectives that come to mind immediately when one considers Ms. Devereaux. Indeed, Blanche is the epitome of Southern charm, especially with members of the opposite sex, “I’m from the South. Flirting is part of my heritage.”

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Blanche reveres her father, known to everyone as “Big Daddy.” Just imagine a cross between the O’Haras of Gone With the Wind and the Pollitt’s of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and you get a good sense of Blanche’s family dynamics. For most of her life she was married to George Devereaux, her high school sweetheart, with whom she had four (or maybe five) children. As far as we know, Blanche was faithful to George for the entire length of the marriage, which lasted over thirty years, but after his death, all bets are off.

To Dorothy about Sophia: “Dorothy, at 2 am in the morning, I was entertaining a gentleman caller. She walked in on me at the most inopportune time. I could have lost my balance and chipped a tooth.”

Blanche’s suitors on the show are too numerous to name. In fact sometimes even she can’t name them herself and she’s proud of it.

“My first was Billy. Oh, I’ll never forget it! That night under the dogwood tree, the air thick with perfume, and me with Billy. Or Bobby? Yes, that’s right, Bobby! Or was it Ben? Oh who knows, anyway, it started with a B.”

Rue McClanahan plays Blanche with gusto, making her larger than life, a supremely self-centered, self-absorbed, woman who also happens to be generous, compassionate and loving. That’s not an easy combination to pull off believably for as long as McClanahan was able to do it. I particularly enjoy the scenes when she gets wrapped up in her own sexiness or when Rose divulges some of her sexual innocence and Blanche can barely believe her ears. “Get outta here.”

McClanahan was nominated three times for a Golden Globe and four times for an Emmy with one win for her memorable portrayal of Blanche Devereaux. Scarlett O’Hara had nothing on her.

Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux — Photo by: Theo Westenberger/NBCU Photo Bank

A “Bea Arthur Type”

With Rue McClanahan secured as The Golden Girls’ Blanche, the producers and creator of the show asked her to call her friend, Bea Arthur, and convince her to play Dorothy Zbornak. Arthur wasn’t interested in doing another TV show, nor was she thrilled with the idea of McClanahan and White repeating previous roles of the ditz and the slut respectively. When Rue explained that they had the opposite roles in this series Arthur became interested and upon reading the script for the pilot agreed to do the show. This was great news indeed since the Dorothy part had been written specifically for her. The script for the pilot actually described the character as a “Bea Arthur Type.”

Bea Arthur, a native New Yorker, was always known as a sharp wit. She had numerous positive stage notices since her performance in the off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera in 1954 and a decade later she originated the role of the matchmaker, Yente in Fiddler on the Roof. The stage was Arthur’s oyster and she would have been happy, I think, with a life-long career on the stage sans television. However, she dabbled in that medium as well since the early 1950s. It was a guest spot on All in the Family in 1971, however, that catapulted Bea’s fame into the stratosphere. She made such an impact in the episode titled “Cousin Maude’s Visit” that before that year was up she was starring in a spin-off as the ultra-liberal, out-spoken, spirited, unforgettable, Maude. 

Arthur’s turn as Maude was so fantastic that I’d place her among the greatest TV characters of all time. The show, which ran from 1972 until 1978, and Bea were well-received and duly recognized by most. It was seven years after that series ended before Arthur made another huge splash on TV.

“If I had that money I could have moved into a swinging condo instead of living with—I better not say anything until I’ve had my coffee [sips coffee]—a slut and a moron!”

Even though Bea Arthur shares the spotlight on The Golden Girls, in contrast to Maude, in which she was a one-woman juggernaut, her impact as Dorothy Zbornak is just as large. To begin with, Bea Arthur had the best reaction shots in the history of television, they are priceless. Perhaps it was due to the actor’s talent that so much strife was written for the character. In fact, Dorothy had so much fodder to get upset about and frustrated with that it’s difficult to find a solo photo of her when she is relaxed and smiling. It’s understandable as she has a constant barrage of Rose’s dumb questions and senseless St. Olaf stories to contend with in addition to Blanche’s bragging about her sex life.

Rose: “Cooking, Dorothy?”
Dorothy: “No, Rose, I’m developing pictures for the Magellan Space Program.”

As if all of that weren’t enough, Dorothy is reminded on a daily basis about her own, loveless life by her own mother. In rewatching episodes of the show recently I was reminded just how often the other women pick on Dorothy about her looks. The character is so strong and resolute about most things that I’d forgotten she is also often wounded. Still, without her that house in Miami would have run amok. Dorothy is the moral center, the voice of reason and the backbone of the foursome. She is a righteous soul who has had her share of deep disappointments in life, but who nonetheless never lacks for a sarcastic comeback, a hilarious one-liner, or a look that could kill.

Bea Arthur is another powerhouse in the TV awards category. She received ten Emmy nominations in her career with two wins, one for Maude and one for The Golden Girls. Arthur also received eight Golden Globe nominations for those roles plus one for her portrayal of Vera Charles in Gene Saks’ Mame (1974), a role she’d played in the 1966 Broadway production and won a Tony for. Many other awards and recognitions went the way of this unique and memorable talent.

Bea Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak

 

Although this post is about the four Golden Girls, the series also features a terrific lot of supporting players in recurring roles. The great Herb Edelman, who I’ve loved ever since I saw him as telephone repair man Harry Pepper in Gene Saks’ Barefoot in the Park (1967) and as Murray in The Odd Couple (1968) also directed by Saks., plays Dorothy’s cheating, ex-husband Stanley Zbornak. Veteran actor, Harold Gould perhaps best known as Martin Morgenstern, Rhoda’s father on both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda plays Rose’s boyfriend, Miles Webber. The legendary Nancy Walker who was married to Gould and played Rhoda’s mother on those sitcoms plays Sophia Petrillo’s sister, Angela to perfection. There are too many great actors to name, but none ever wasted a scene alongside the ultra-talented main players. Each episode is filled with such wonderful dialogue that I sometimes find myself rewinding to hear certain lines again. Often, I wish I could remember the jabs to use when needed.

The Golden Girls is one of those situation comedies that will forever be funny, that will forever be relevant. After all, who wouldn’t to grow old like these women? I know I never tire of watching them and the comedy is as on-point as when the show was first made. Knowing these characters well after watching the series several times over does not diminish the impact of the comebacks or the enjoyment one gets from each of these women. Now, we can argue about what makes something a classic until the cows come home, which has likely happened numerous times in St. Olaf, Minnesota, but this gem is certainly that and the reason is simple – there were four highly skilled actors who came together to speak words written for them by brilliant architects of comedy. This foursome is so perfect, the characters so fully realized and portrayed, that any change to any one would cause a TV Butterfly Effect. I’m not even sure how that would manifest itself, but it would be catastrophic. Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia and the women who play them are a foursome for the ages. They are precious and vital and pals and confidants. We cannot do without them.

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Be sure to visit Movie Movie Blog Blog and The Favorite Foursome Blogathon. There are lots of great teams of four covered in the event.

 

18 thoughts

  1. Oh, Aurora, another excellent article. One of my very favorite show that I cannot pass up, ever. You did a wonderful job analyzing these characters and their place in that world. I loved it when I was younger and now that I am an old person it is even better. Thank you for your marvelous analysis and remembrances. it’s obvious you love them, and so do I. I could watch ‘Miami nice’ forever.

    1. Thank you so much, Jan for stopping by and your lovely comments. One of the reasons this show is so great is that it goes beyond generations. It’s damn funny period!

  2. I fully enjoyed this far-ranging history of the TV series — thanks so much for contributing this to the blogathon. Norman Lear was once asked if there was any TV show not of his own making that he wished he’d been involved in. He replied, “I’ll never know why it never occurred to me to make a show like ‘The Golden Girls.’ I had worked with all of those actresses before!” (He was in the show’s DNA, though; ‘Golden Girls’ creator Susan Harris wrote the infamous two-part abortion-themed episode of “Maude.”)

    1. Ah yes! I remember that Lear said that. He said it in an interview I watched. Anyway, thanks for hosting this event and giving me the opportunity to visit with these dames!

  3. I didn’t watch The Golden Girls on its initial run. (For a person who watches way too much TV, I missed an awful lot of TV.) However, I caught up on the show in syndication and wondered what was wrong with me. Look at all this talent. Look at all this snark. Look at all this cheesecake.

    The Golden Girls hasn’t aired around here in a while, but your terrific article gave me instant recall of the laughs and the admiration I came to feel for the series. Thanks.

    1. That you, Paddy. Gotta say I’m a little surprised this is even coherent and not in Spanglish. My mom is visiting and I wrote the entire thing while she asked me questions. Anyway, these women are tops!!

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for this wonderful article. I loved these ladies and this series so much, that I still can’t watch the episode where Bea Arthur decided to leave the show, and it’s her last episode. By the way, she was married to Gene Saks. So sorry that three of them are gone. Thank you again.

  5. It’s amazing to have watched a show since it came on and I’m honored! My kids know each of them now as much as I do! The love in this piece shines through so much. I remember when I’d learned about Rue possibly playing Rose and Betty possibly playing Blanche and thought how much they would’ve been Viv and Sue Ann all over again, thank goodness it worked out this way and proved even more the depths of their acting dynamics. Thanks for this piece and you know which is one of my faves!!! 🙂 And, OMG, you could spell “Vertubenflugen”!!!! Tee hee!!!!

    1. Are you kidding?! I can’t look at John Fiedler without thinking about you. LOL! It means a lot that you liked this. It’s not easy with this amazing cast.

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