Picture it: Miami, 1985. Four older women meet as roommates and kindle unexpected friendships in the television phenomenon The Golden Girls.
The “girls” were comprised of caustic Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), shade priestess Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty), Southern siren Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan) and cheerfully gullible Rose Nylund (Betty White) — a dubious squad who, together, hilariously piloted topics of widowhood, retirement, romance and sex after 50.
White, 98, is the only surviving cast member (Getty died in 2008, Arthur in 2009 and McClanahan in 2010). But the Emmy-awarded NBC series, which aired for seven seasons, lives on through books, clothing, Halloween costumes, face masks, a pop-up cafe, two spinoffs (Empty Nest and Golden Palace), an all-Black reboot and a priceless vocabulary lesson (“What's a lanai?” “The porch!”).
But do you really know everything about The Golden Girls? Grab a slice of cheesecake and dig in.
Betty White almost played Blanche and Dorothy was written for Bea Arthur
Having previously played a "neighborhood nymphomaniac" on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, White was thrilled to audition for Blanche ahead of the 1985 pilot episode. But director Jay Sandrich worried about typecasting, so he gave the hyper-sexualized role to McClanahan and the lovable naiveté to White.
Although White didn’t know anything about Rose, she fell in love with her character, St. Olaf stories and all. "This one took Blanche out of orbit where I never would have had the guts to go," White said of McClanahan in a 2010 interview with The Paley Center for Media.
Meanwhile, the roles of Dorothy and her mother Sophia were cast organically. Dorothy’s character was originally written with a “Bea Arthur-like” character in mind, show creator Susan Harris told Entertainment Weekly, and choosing Getty for Sophia, was a “no-brainer.”
White and Arthur weren’t that close
Their TV chemistry was unbeatable, but White believed that Arthur wasn’t her biggest fan. “Bea was not that fond of me,” she told Joy Behar in 2011. “I don’t know what I ever did. I don’t know, but she was not that thrilled with me. But I loved Bea and I admired her...”
In 2016, Arthur’s son Matthew Saks explained to The Hollywood Reporter, “I think she felt she was more of an actress than Betty,” he said of Arthur. “Mom came from Broadway. Betty starred on a game show at one point.”
Saks also admitted that Arthur got annoyed when White chatted with live audience members on breaks. “I think my mom didn’t dig that,” he said. “It’s more about being focused or conserving your energy. It’s just not the right time to talk to fans between takes. Betty was able to do it and it didn’t seem to affect her. But it rubbed my mom the wrong way.”
However, Saks insisted, “there was no fighting at all. They were friends. At one point they lived close enough that they would drive each other to work.” Arthur herself has described White as “wonderful.”
George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino and Mario Lopez were celebrity guests
Whether they made guest cameos or launched their careers from the exposure, a parade of famous faces appeared on the show. George Clooney played a dreamy detective investigating neighborhood jewelry thieves, Mario Lopez was Dorothy’s English student whom she accidentally got deported, Leslie Nielsen’s Lucas Hollingsworth character married Dorothy in Season 7 and Quentin Tarantino played an Elvis Presley impersonator in Season 4.
Other cameos were made by Bob Hope, Burt Reynolds, Sonny Bono and Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.
Show writers did not hesitate to recast actors in different roles.
Hawk-eyed fans might recall that before Harold Gould played a college professor smitten by Rose, he wooed her as Arnie Peterson in Season 1, whisking her away to the Bahamas for her first tryst since the death of her husband Charlie.
Other actors were recycled throughout seasons: Sid Melton played Sophia’s late husband (and Dorothy’s father) Salvador in flashbacks, and he also snuck into Season 6 playing medieval restaurant waiter “Don the Fool.” Chick Vennera was a Cuban boxer named Kid Pepe in Season 4, then news reporter Enrique Mas in Season 5 and Keone Young played Dorothy’s doctor in Season 5 and her student in Season 7.
Fan Queen Elizabeth flew the Golden Girls cast to London for a live performance
Queen Elizabeth loved the series so much that, in 1988, she invited the cast to perform in the Royal Variety Performance in London over Thanksgiving. “We’ll do about seven minutes from the show, but we’ll have to censor a few things for the queen,” Arthur told the Ocala StarBanner before the show.
White described the encounter as “exciting” in a 2014 Reddit AMA. “The Queen was lovely. We were told not to address her unless we were addressed,” she wrote. “She was up in a box and she came down on stage after with Princess Anne. She said, ‘lovely, pretty girls.’”
Cheesecake was more than dessert
The rich cake was a centerpiece for late-night bonding hour. “Sitting around eating cheesecake gave them the opportunity to talk about something,” Harris told Entertainment Weekly. “And that’s why it was so appealing... You didn’t see people talking [on TV].” And although the show served up plenty of helpings (100 of which were featured throughout the series, per IMDB), Arthur allegedly “hated” cheesecake.
Getty’s fear of death hampered the writing
Sophia faked her own death and organized a wake to eavesdrop on people’s tributes — and funded a funeral for a hated woman to show respect for human life “no matter how wretched it was” — but facing death was something that terrified Getty, White wrote in her 2012 book If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't). “Estelle Getty was so afraid of dying that the writers on The Golden Girls couldn't put a dead joke in the script,” she wrote. “This was early on — long before she ever got ill.” (Getty suffered from Lewy body dementia).
McClanahan fought to give Blanche her signature Southern drawl
Since Blanche hailed from Atlanta, Ga., McClanahan initially played the character with a Southern twang, despite a mandate from Sandrich to use her own Oklahoma accent. Not wanting to argue with the director, McClanahan delivered her lines with a “modified sort of Southern accent.” But when The Golden Girls got picked up as a series, another director encouraged her to play up Blanche’s tone, she explained during a Television Academy Foundation interview.
Dorothy’s signature oversized earrings were clip-ons
Even when lounging on wicker furniture, Dorothy wore heavy, sparkly earrings provided by stylist Judy Evans. “She knew Dorothy had a dramatic side, so she’d give me crazy earrings to wear,” Arthur told the New York Post in 2002. “She was extraordinary.” Still, Arthur hated the jewelry — and besides, she didn’t have pierced ears. “I really feel — bear with me here, don’t think I’m out of my mind — I think it’s a way of desecrating the body,” she said.
Creator Susan Harris didn’t like Sex and the City comparisons
Four fabulous women, glittery fashion and graphic sex talk sound like a Sex and the City episode, but the show blazed its own path, Harris told Entertainment Weekly. “These [Golden Girls] women had solid, real relationships; Sex and the City and Designing Women were something else,” she said. “As crazy as those women could be on Golden Girls — Rose with her stories and Sophia with her mouth — it was more grounded in reality than those other shows, which I thought conformed more to the situation-comedy formula.”
The real-life Golden Girls home is not in Florida
Although the series was based in Miami, Fla., the exterior of the home was shot in Los Angeles, Calif. Last month, the 3,000-square-foot tourist attraction on N. Saltair Avenue sold for almost $4 million dollars, $1 million more than its asking price. The four-bedroom house received 20 offers within 14 days, a property realtor told the Wall Street Journal, and ironically, was sold to a family who weren’t Golden Girls fans.
Bea Arthur’s departure from the show ended the series
When asked by the Television Academy Foundation why The Golden Girls went off the air, Arthur answered, “I stayed with it for seven years and I figured, it’s time. It’s time to leave while we’re still up there.” Arthur suspected that many were critical of her decision, although her castmates, she said, were supportive.
The Golden Girls is currently streaming on Hulu.
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