Ed. Mental Floss mourns the loss of actress Estelle Getty, who passed away today after a long battle with Lewy Body Dementia. We all hope that she went to a better place than Shady Pines, and thank her for the many laughs she gave us over the years.
Have you ever threatened someone by simply saying “Shady Pines, Ma”? When you feel as jumpy as a virgin at a prison rodeo, is cheesecake the only remedy that will soothe your nerves? If so, you just might be a Golden Girls fan. The show originally ran on NBC from 1985 to 1992, and 15 years later, it still attracts an average of 16 million viewers weekly on Lifetime, despite being aired four times daily.
Former NBC wunderkind Brandon Tartikoff got the idea for the series while visiting an elderly aunt. His aunt’s neighbor was also her best friend, and he was amused at how they constantly bickered with one another, but yet they always remained pals.
Estelle Getty was 47 years old before she first appeared on stage, so it was no wonder that she felt intimidated by her veteran co-workers. Since Sophia was a last-minute addition as a regular character, who would’ve thought that she would ultimately become the most popular Golden Girl? Part of her charm was the stroke that had damaged the part of her brain that censored her speech, which allowed the writers to give her some classic cutting lines:
BLANCHE (trying to entice a suitor): I’m going to take a long, hot steamy bath, with just enough water to barely cover my perky bosoms.
SOPHIA: You’re only going to sit in an inch of water?
Estelle seemed to fluff her lines more often than not, and had to resort to using cue cards or script pages taped to the kitchen table. Some of her co-stars felt a bit put out that they had to do so many re-takes because of Estelle, yet she was the cast member that received the most fan mail. As time went on, Estelle had some other odd medical problems that ultimately led to a misdiagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. Sadly, the medications she was given (in error) further exacerbated the problem. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that she was finally diagnosed as suffering from Lewy Body Dementia. Betty White kept in touch with Estelle described her current health situation as “a curtain wafting in and out” – she has her good days when she’s active and communicative, and other days when she does nothing more than doze in her favorite chair.
When casting the show, Lee Grant was first offered the role of Dorothy, but she refused to play a woman old enough to have grandchildren. Even though the original production notes describing Dorothy Zbornak listed her as “a Bea Arthur type,” it took some time before the producers got the bright idea of actually offering the part to actress Beatrice Arthur.
A Golden Girls fact: Bea Arthur (Dorothy) was actually a year older than the actress who portrayed her mother on the show.
This and the answers to more all after the jump…
When Rue McClanahan and Betty White were first hired for the series, it was with the intent of Betty playing man-hungry Blanche, and Rue the naïve Rose. However, both actresses felt that those roles were too similar to characters they’d recently played: Rue’s Vivian on Maude and Betty’s Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They asked the producers if they could switch roles, and after the first table reading it was agreed that the change was a brilliant idea.
The pilot episode featured a flamboyantly gay cook named Coco (played by Charles Levin) who worked for the Girls. By the time the series was picked up, though, his part had been eliminated for two reasons. One was that the writers noted that in many of the proposed future scripts the main interaction between the women occurred in the kitchen while preparing and eating food, and a separate cook would distract from that camaraderie. In addition, the character of Sophia had originally been planned as an occasional guest star, but Estelle Getty had tested so strongly with preview audiences that the producers quickly made Sophia a regular character (and chief chef), which made Coco superfluous.
A 2005 study by Simmons Market Research determined that more gays and lesbians watched The Golden Girls than the general population in any given week. Admittedly, the show touched on homosexuality more than once: Blanche’s brother came out as gay in one episode, Dorothy’s college friend was a lesbian, and then there was that time that clueless Rose was trying to prove herself on her first day on the job as a production assistant on a local Miami TV talk show…
A large part of the Golden Girls’ appeal was that they were all women over age 50 who were still actively working, volunteering in the community, and, yes, dating and having sex. They showed the world that menopause didn’t automatically equal resigning oneself to knitting afghans and baking cookies. This was brilliantly illustrated when the Girls were preparing to go on a Valentine’s Day cruise with some gentlemen friends and Dorothy suggested that they should perhaps bring along some “protection.” Of course, Rose got it all wrong…
Now is your chance to come out and admit your Golden Girls love. What is your favorite St. Olaf story? How crazy do you go trying to match the internal architecture of their house with the outside shots? And please try and explain to me the varying number and ages of the Girls’ children and grandchildren.