To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
23 Jul 2008 10:20
Estelle Getty, the diminutive actress who spent 40 years struggling for success before landing a role of a lifetime in 1985 as the sarcastic octogenarian Sophia on TV’s The Golden Girls, has died. She was 84.
Getty, who suffered from advanced dementia, died on July 22 at her Hollywood Boulevard home, said her son, Carl Gettleman of Santa Monica.
“Estelle always wanted to be an actress, and she achieved that goal beyond her dreams,” former Golden Girls co-star Rue McClanahan said.
“Don’t feel sad about her passing.
The Golden Girls, featuring four female retirees sharing a house in Miami, grew out of NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff’s belief that television was ignoring its older viewers.
Three of its stars had already appeared in previous series: Bea Arthur in Maude, Betty White in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and McClanahan in Mama’s Family. The last character to be cast was Sophia Petrillo, the feisty 80-something mother of Arthur’s character.
“Our mother-daughter relationship was one of the greatest comic duos ever, and I will miss her,” Arthur said in a statement.
When she auditioned, Getty was appearing on stage in Hollywood as the carping Jewish mother in Harvey Fierstein’s play Torch Song Trilogy. In her early 60s, she flunked her Golden Girls test twice because it was believed she didn’t look old enough to play 80.
“I could understand that,” she told an interviewer a year after the show debuted. “I walk fast, I move fast, I talk fast.”
She came prepared for the third audition, however, wearing dowdy clothes and telling an NBC make-up artist: “To you this is just a job. To me it’s my entire career down the toilet unless you make me look 80.” The artist did, Getty got the job and won two Emmys.
“The only comfort at this moment is that although Estelle has moved on, Sophia will always be with us,” White said in an email.
The Golden Girls culminated a long struggle for success during which Getty worked low-paying office jobs to help support her family while she tried to make it as a stage actress.
“I knew I could be seduced by success in another field, so I’d say, ‘Don’t promote me, please,’” she recalled.
She also appeared in small parts in a handful of films and TV movies during that time, including Tootsie, Deadly Force and Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story.
After her success in The Golden Girls, other roles came her way.
She played Cher’s mother in Mask, Sylvester Stallone’s in Stop or My Mom Will Shoot and Barry Manilow’s in the TV film Copacabana. Other credits included Mannequin and Stuart Little (as the voice of Grandma Estelle).
The Golden Girls, which ran from 1985 to 1992, was an immediate hit, and Sophia, who began as a minor character, soon evolved into a major one.
Audiences particularly loved the verbal zingers Getty would hurl at the other three. When McClanahan’s libidinous character Blanche once complained that her life was an open book, Sophia shot back: “Your life’s an open blouse.”
“I always told her she should be a stand-up comic. She was so funny in person,” McClanahan recalled.
Getty had gained a knack for one-liners in her late teens when she did stand-up comedy at a Catskills hotel. Female comedians were rare in those days, however, and she bombed.
Undeterred, she continued to pursue a career in entertainment, and while her parents were encouraging, her father also insisted that she learn office skills so she would have something to fall back on.
Born Estelle Scher to Polish immigrants in New York, Getty fell in love with theatre when she saw a vaudeville show at age four.
She married New York businessman Arthur Gettleman (the source of her stage name) in 1947, and they had two sons, Carl and Barry. The marriage prevailed despite her long absences on the road and in The Golden Girls.
In addition to her son Carl, Getty is survived by son Barry Gettleman, of Miami; a brother, David Scher of London; and a sister, Rosilyn Howard of Las Vegas.—Sapa-AP
Create Account | Lost Your Password?