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Estelle Getty was a true 'Golden Girl'

July 23, 2008 | 10:45 am

Estelle Getty, who died Tuesday three days before her 85th brithday, may have won her only Emmy Award in the supporting race but she was really one of the leading lights of "The Golden Girls." As the sassy Sophia dominating daughter Dorothy (Bea Arthur), Getty unleashed a string of zesty zingers over the seven-year run of the now-classic sitcom. And she was equally quick with a put-down for rambling Rose (Betty White) and bawdy Blanche (Rue McClanahan).


From her early days in the Yiddish theater and playing the Catskills to her triumph as Harvey Fierstein's mother in the 1983 Tony award-winning "Torch Song Trilogy," Estelle Getty remained relatively unknown outside of New York City for the first 40 years of her career. Then, while appearing in the L.A. run of "Torch Song" in 1985, she donned a wig and auditioned for the part of a woman two decades her senior. Standing a mere 4 feet, 11 inches and a year younger than her on-screen daughter, Estelle Getty ruled the roost.

Bea Arthur said in a statement, "Our mother-daughter relationship was one of the greatest comic duos ever, and I will miss her." Betty White commented, "The only comfort at this moment is that although Estelle has moved on, Sophia will always be with us." And Rue McClanahan told the Associated Press, "Don't feel sad about her passing. She will always be with us in her crowning achievement, Sophia."

"The Golden Girls" was a smash hit from its debut in 1985 and won the Emmy for best comedy series that first season while Betty White added a lead win to the pair of supporting Emmys she had from the 1970s for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Like White, Getty was nominated for all seven seasons of the show, while Arthur and McClanahan only competed for the first four seasons. Getty did win her only Golden Globe midway through this first season. The Globes put Getty in the lead race up against all of her co-stars, rather than relegating her to the catch-all supporting category. She tied with "Moonlighting" star Cybill Shepherd.

However, by the time the Emmys rolled around that fall, Getty was running in the supporting race. For the first season, Getty lost the Emmy to another sassy mama, Rhea Perlman, who was at the end of a three-year run as Emmy champ for "Cheers." For the second season, which also took the comedy series trophy and won McClanahan her only Emmy, Getty was bested by sassy single gal Jackee Harry, who ruled on "227," another Saturday-night NBC comedy. Estelle

The third season proved to be the charm for both Estelle Getty and Bea Arthur, who added an Emmy bookend to the one she had won back in 1977 for "Maude." The sparring mother-daughter screen team was all smiles Emmy night. It was reported that any on-set tensions eased considerably when all of the golden girls had their own Golden Girl (Emmy's longtime nickname in the TV biz).  With these wins, "The Golden Girls" joined "All in the Family" in the Emmy record book as the only sitcoms with an entirely award-winning cast. ("Will & Grace" would become the third such show when Debra Messing finally won her Emmy in 2003.)

For the fourth season, Getty lost out to Perlman, who was back in the winner's circle one last time before ceding the crown to fellow "Cheers" co-star Bebe Neuwirth, who prevailed the following two years. For the final season of the show, Getty lost to Laurie Metcalf, who was beginning her own three-year run as Emmy champ.


"The Golden Girls" came to an end in 1992, when Arthur wanted to leave the show on a high note, though it was the only season it was not nominated for best comedy series. An ill-fated spinoff, "The Golden Palace," lasted only one season and Getty made sporadic appearances throughout the rest of the 1990s. Suffering from ill health for most of the last decade, she was seldom seen in public but became known to a whole new generation with Lifetime's multiple reruns of "The Golden Girls."