The Golden Girls is one of the most iconic shows in American television history. It was nominated for dozens of awards and won more than a few on top of entering top lists of the best and most beloved shows of all-time. Everyone involved in the production of the series deserves all the credit for their work, but in the forefront, four ladies were the face of this incredibly memorable sitcom.
The four starring women were Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty. They portrayed widowed or divorced women from different parts of the country, and alongside their different mentalities and acting histories, it resulted in lots of well-crafted and humorous moments. The show was revolutionary for the time because it had single women in the later part of their lives openly talking about anything from getting older to their romantic and intimate relationships to their love of cheesecake. The show hit home for many and had an avid fan base, with a great deal of them journeying far and wide to see the live tapings.
As such, although the show featured lovingly warm relationships at its core, it’s surprising to learn that the stars of the show for the most part did not get along. In addition to generally tense communications between the co-stars, the women had a few idiosyncrasies that created some truly odd occurrences on set. But being the professionals they were, the various issues the women had didn’t affect the quality of the series. Regrettably, though, the women’s infighting, on top of clashes with the writing staff, led to the show’s cancellation after a seven-season run.
The success of the show made it into a cult classic that’s still being recognized decades later. Its favorable status spawned a franchise of many creative works such as spin-offs, local adaptations, and a slew of whimsical fan projects. Through these homages and the original show’s groundbreaking themes, The Golden Girls remains in fans’ collective memory as a truly timeless piece of television magic. The show has withstood the test of time, and its influence is seen today in the works of writers who came later, who put women of all creeds and ages at the forefront of their work, writing them as fully formed, compassionate and hilarious human beings.
A young soul
Though Estelle Getty played Sophia, Dorothy’s mother and the oldest character on the show, she was actually younger than her on-screen daughter. Kudos to the make-up department for making her appear as the mother of Bea Arthur, who was her three months senior. However, Rue McClanahan is the youngest Golden Girl main actress. In addition, and despite being the oldest, Betty White outlived all of her co-stars, and remains a comedy figure many adore from this show and later production.
Never getting old
While Estelle Getty played Sophia, the eldest character on the show, in reality she was only 63, and as a result had to have long makeup sessions to give her the appearance of an older woman. Getty wasn’t too keen on looking older after the cameras stopped rolling, though, and so she and got a facelift between seasons one and two. Her newly youthful appearance was met with dismay by the show’s makeup department, who already had a difficult time “aging” the actress.
In an interview, Rue McClanahan revealed that Estelle Getty wanted the characters to be Jewish. She said Getty would have been far more comfortable playing a Jewish woman like herself instead of trying to be Italian. Clearly, though, it didn’t affect the quality of the performance. Funny enough, if she were to play a Jewish woman, her on-screen daughter might have had an easier time, too, as Bea arthur was also raised in a Jewish home.
Betty White for SNL campaign
After her time playing the ditzy but kind Rose Nylund, Betty White found success on shows like sitcoms Everybody Loves Raymond and Hot in Cleveland. Her late-in-life likeability was so great, it caused fans to start an online campaign to get her to host, at the age of 88, sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. At the opening monologue of the show, White thanked her fans and admitted that “when I first heard about the campaign to get me to host Saturday Night Live, I didn’t know what Facebook was.”
Lost in translation
Betty White played Rose Lindstrom Nylund, the lovely farm girl from St. Olaf, Minnesota. The Norwegian-American spoke in the Scandinavian language as a running gag through the series, when, in fact, White never said a single correct phrase in Norwegian. The subtitles were there to present a layer of authentication to the hilarious gibberish. The Norwegian accent was not the only one on the show. Rue McClanahan’s character, Blanche Devereaux, had a Southern accent, which was actually McClanahan’s suggestion, for a little bit of added sultriness.
A game of wits
Teen fan mail
The Golden Girls had a clear fanbase in adult women who could identify with the main characters, but it also managed to find an audience among teenage girls during its run. The show’s popularity was so high with some of them, that teen girls would send fan letters to the show, asking if they could live with them. Because everyone’s teen years are rife with questions and inexperience, to see senior women living life despite certain cultural expectations, seemed to inspire adolescents to be as confident as them.
Food for thought
Though their kitchen wasn’t the largest, if they did manage to squeeze a fifth Golden Girl in there, in would probably be the cheesecake they tucked into every other episode. Whenever one of the main characters had an emotional story to share, they would congregate around the table and go to town on one of those dreamy looking cakes. And wouldn’t you believe it – despite the over a hundred cheesecakes that were shared by the girls, it turns out that Bea Arthur never cared for them.
No rest for the witty
The Golden Girls’ creator was prolific writer/producer Suzanne Harris, whose viscerally funny take on latter day living often included late-night confessions with a side of cheesecake. In her personal life, though, Harris faced chronic fatigue syndrome, which affected her ability to participate in the show’s production. She did, however, feature her struggles in the episode Sick and Tired, in which Dorothy struggles with the same ailment. Harris said she wrote the episode as “my revenge script for all the people out there who had a disease like that.”
A different Dorothy
Though Golden Girls featured a quartet of fierce women still capable of change, it was Dorothy, with her overt mimicry and often blunt analyses of the situation, who moved many of the plotlines along. As such, both NBC and the show’s creator, Susan Harris, considered many actresses for the role. Harris’ first choice was Academy Award winning actress, Lee Grant. However, Grant turned it down since she didn’t want to play a grandmother. The part was then offered to Bea Arthur, but she had her own reservations about it…
Though it may seem absurd in hindsight, Bea Arthur initially didn’t want the part of Dorothy, either. Her co-star, Rue McClanahan suggested she take the part, but Arthur concluded that it would simply be a repeat of the same roles they had on the show Maude. Even though Arthur thought the part was redundant, McClanahan managed to convince her by saying, “Why are you going to turn down the best script that’s ever going to come across your desk as long as you live?”
Who Doesn’t Want to Sing?
In an interview, Rue McClanahan mentioned that her favorite episode is season seven’s Journey to the Center of Attention. The episode revolves around Dorothy’s sudden popularity in a place McClanahan’s Blanche, often goes to pick up men. Knowing about the script in advance, McClanahan asked for a choreographer especially for this episode to stage an elaborate number, with her singing on top of a grand piano as she is facing one blunder after the other.
Not a tiny matter
Betty White stated in an interview that her favorite episode of the show is season one’s A Little Romance. In the episode, White’s character, Rose, is reluctant to have her friends meet her new boyfriend, Psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Newman, since he is a little person. White claimed that none of the jokes were hurtful towards little people despite the fact that the episode had, in her words, included “every ‘short’ joke in the book.” To be honest, we’re a wee bit short of jokes ourselves at the moment.
The House is actually in Los Angeles
Though the girls lived in Miami, Florida, the exterior of the Gold Girls’ home was a actually a house in Los Angeles, California. The three million dollar house, according to real-estate agencies, has nearly 3,000 square feet with four bedrooms and four bathrooms. To deter fans from showing up to take pictures with its iconic facade, high walls with foliage were put in place. At least, you could always take a picture with the street sign – in Florida.
A table for three
The show revolved around four women and their life together in Miami. However, as keen viewers picked up, there are only three chairs around their kitchen table. This decision was done because the set was too small for all four women to sit side by side, and because they didn’t want to have one actress with her back to the camera. Another constant was that Dorothy always sat in the center chair because of her relative height in comparison to the others and her invaluable expressions.
The Golden Girls was a hit comedy series that ran for seven seasons. Although the show ran for a long time, it kept its rank as a top-ten highest-rated show for six of its seven seasons. In addition to the high ranking while the show aired, it was ranked 54 on the best series of all-time by TV Guide in 2013 and 69 on Writers Guild of America’s list in 2014. During the time of its airing, the show had 68 Emmy nominations and 11 wins overall. Each one of its four stars received an Emmy, making The Golden Girls the third sitcom in history to achieve this landmark. But behind the successful facade, tension was brewing in set.
A prickly star
Jim Colucci, who wrote “Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind The Lanai,” portrays Bea Arthur as difficult to work with from his research, interviewing 250 people for his book. Colucci described her as a “quirky and complicated woman” who hates birds and the sound of chewing gum to the point she would get people fired over it. She also never wore shoes on set because a past injury made footwear troublesome for her. In addition to her problematic whims, the producers didn’t want to bring the serious actress, with lauded roles such as Maude, to the lighthearted sitcom. If Susan Harris, the show’s writer, hadn’t put her foot down, NBC wouldn’t have cast Arthur, but another Broadway heavy-hitter…
Elaine Stritch’s failure
Elaine Stritch was a broadway legend and a masterful actress, with a Tony on top of three Emmys to her name. However, she failed to secure the main role of Dorothy. “It was a damn good script,” said Stritch. “I blew a multi-million, zillion dollar, international, syndicated, residual-grabbing, bopparoni, smasharoni, television situation comedy entitled, The Golden Girls!” Although she had a great career without landing the role of Dorothy, missing this opportunity seemed to had bothered her quite a bit.
The differences in the main characters combined with their adventures were the causes behind the high level of comedy. The level-headed but sometimes arrogant Dorothy; the promiscuous Southern belle Blanche; the cheerful but somewhat obtuse Rose and Dorothy’s forgetful but acerbic mother, Sophia. The four characters were so successful that they have become archetypical for shows in the future that dealt with similar themes such as intimate relationships and sisterhood (SATC, anyone?).
Two decades before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Golden Girls created its own microcosm in Miami, Florida with three spin-off shows. The spin-offs vary from a direct sequel continuing the end of the show (The Golden Palace), or stories that occur in the same city with iconic characters popping in and out (Empty Nest, seen here; and Nurses). All in all, the entire universe nearly ran for 20 seasons, and featured iconic characters from earlier series, returning as minor characters in newer shows.
Iconic musical theme
The show’s opening theme, “Thank You for Being a Friend,” was written by Andrew Gold in 1978. The success of the series made the song widely recognized and featured in various televised events even decades later such as Super Bowl XL in 2006. Despite the song’s great success, Gold stated it was “just this little throwaway thing,” which only took an hour to write. The composer wasn’t the only hesitant artist, the recording artist herself, Cynthia Fee, didn’t want to record it at first, either.
Dragging the girls along
Years after the show’s original conclusion, it still had a loyal fan base that went so far as creating their own inspired art. The 2003 Golden Girls: Live! was an all-male drag theater performance that premiered in West Village, Manhattan’s Rose’s Turn Theater until the end of that year. It featured two episodes played live back to back in medium-sized venues like the aforementioned one. It was cancelled after a cease and desist order was made by the original creators since the play’s produces failed to get the necessary rights.
Gracias for being a friend
The success of The Golden Girls across the world proved its themes and humor both surpass language and time. For example, the 2015 Chilean adaptation, Los Años Dorados (The Golden Years), was proven successful enough to have a multi-year production. In addition, the Israeli version, seen here, had a 6-season run, nearly as long as the original American series, starting in 2011. Overall, the iconic series was adapted to more than half a dozen countries, proving that the show’s concept resonates with audiences across cultures and time.
Michael La Rue is a close friend of Rue McClanahan, one of the show’s stars. After her passing, he inherited many of her personal belongings, and decided to honor her life by displaying them as decoration at his restaurant, which he aptly named Rue La Rue Cafe. It opened in 2017 in Washington Heights, Manhattan, New York, with the place’s main theme being The Golden Girls show itself. Unfortunately, the eatery closed after less than a year of operation.
Quitting the show
Despite finding great success on the show, lead actress Bea Arthur was ready to call it quits several times. The show came to its conclusion when she finally went through with her decision. According to Jim Colucci, who wrote a book about the series, her decision was motivated by the numerous insults in the script, targeting her character’s looks and physique-which related to her own physicality, as well. Colucci added that she also wanted to quit the show while it was still popular.
It began as a joke
In 1984, in order to impress advertisers, NBC featured a live comedy sketch of Doris Roberts (of Everybody Loves Raymond) and Selma Diamond (of Night Court). At one point, the actresses were shown to be confused, thinking there was a show called “Miami Nice.” The punch line was, “Oh, it must be about old people in Miami. That does sound nice.” When the audience laughed, NBC’s president thought it could actually be produced into a show. And so, one of the most loveable sitcoms in history started as a gag.
A last-minute switch-a-rue
Due to their past portfolio, Betty White was initially cast as Blanche Devereaux, and Rue McClanahan as Rose Nylund. It was the director of the pilot, Jay Sandrich, who switched between them – much to White’s chagrin – because he felt their personalities matched the other character better. McClanahan, especially, was comparable to Blanche more than White was in both her attitude and wardrobe. Eventually, both women got used to their new parts, as seen from the show’s numerous accolades and each actress’ personal Emmy wins.
Unfriendly cast off-set
Despite their amicable portrayal on television, the “girls” weren’t all that close. In fact, Rue McClanahan admitted that “Bea and I didn’t have a lot of relationship going on. She wouldn’t go to lunch with me unless Betty would go too.” This was before Betty won an Emmy over Bea, effectively severing that connection, too. They only time the main cast confessed to hang out together was in Estelle Getty’s birthday parties, which, of course, happened once a year. Betty did, however, claim she was close to Rue.
Suffering from stage fright
Estelle Getty, who portrayed salty-tongued Sophia Petrillo on the show, allegedly had a severe case of stage fright during the show’s live tapings. Nevertheless, her great talent was apparent in her performance. Rue McClanahan stated that during the week, Estelle was completely a different person in comparison to the tapings. Estelle would forget all of her lines during filming and would rely on a teleprompter more often than not. Rue attempted to help her with guided imagery of her character’s history, but she claims it didn’t always work.
Funny enough, Rue McClanahan’s role on the show, as a landlord in her own house, was an experience she was familiar with from her real life, as well. Unfortunately, in the case of her real life experience, this particular trio did not get along so well, with Rue describing one as a control-freak automaton while the other was constantly late with the rent. Needless to say, there were no late-night cheesecake meetings in the kitchen.
Saving Private Arthur
Bea Arthur, who played the sarcastic, tough cookie Dorothy Zbornak, had an entire different career before acting, which may explain her off-putting attitude described by her colleagues. Bea was one of the first women who volunteered to be a U.S. marine in its women’s reserves before World War II. During her service, she was a typist and a truck driver. To increase her chances of acceptance, Bea wrote on her volunteering application form that one of her hobbies was hunting.
Performing for the Queen
The cast garnered such a wide fan base that the late Queen Mother of England, the current Queen Elizabeth’s mother, was a fan. Following Queen Elizabeth’s request, the crew perform live in front of the royal family. “The Queen was lovely,” Betty White said. “We were told not to address her unless we were addressed.” Apparently, after a bit of goading from White, The Queen agreed that the Rockettes, who had also performed that evening, were quite the lookers, by saying, “Not bad bodies!”
Many known guest stars
The Golden Girls ran for seven seasons, and with so many episodes, there were numerous minor roles to be filled. Many of whom were portrayed by known names that includes: George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Leslie Nielsen, Debbie Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke, Rita Moreno, Jerry Orbach, Hal Linden, Jeffrey Tambor, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope, Sonny Bono, and Alex Trebek. The show maintained high quality in terms of the acting, both with the main actresses, and the rotating talent that portrayed the minor roles.
Betty’s and Bea’s different approaches
Show researcher Jim Colucci, stated the animosity between Betty White and Bea Arthur stemmed from their different acting philosophies. Betty liked subtle humor while Bea desired a film stage feel with tighter close-ups. Betty would go on and talk with the audience between takes while Bea avoided breaking character when they were filming. Sources on the set said that the feud started because Betty won her Emmy before the others did. Bea in particular was mad, since she came from theater while Betty’s past experience included hosting a game show.
Taking the outfits home
Rue McClanahan admitted to having a similar attitude to that of the exceedingly flirtatious Blanche Devereaux, but they also had a similar fashion sense. Rue loved the various outfits that Blanche wore, the loungewear, the nightgowns, and the padded blazers so much, she converted her kitchen to an additional wardrobe for the clothes she kept. Her obsession was taken lightly, with the costume designers eventually creating her outfits according to her direct specifications. Sounds like a dream!
Estelle’s red lines
Estelle Getty portrayed the character Sophia Petrillo, which was known for her quick and pungent wit, but there are things the actress wasn’t willing to say. “I have a thing about gratuitous pain. Why would you make fun of somebody who’s fat or who’s cross-eyed or who’s bald? And I won’t do gay-bashing jokes.” Her stance is clearly modern, which is befitting a timeless show such as Golden Girls. In addition, Getty refrained from making fun of funerals because of her fear of death.