A tear came to my eye when I started jotting down ideas for how I would celebrate into words, the thirtieth anniversary of the iconic sitcom, The Golden Girls. For those of my generation and the many that came before us, it hardly seems possible that that amount of time could have passed since the world was first exposed to crazy antics of Rose Nylund, Blanche Devereaux, Dorothy Zbornak, and Sophia Petrillo. Now, as I wipe a tear from my eye and look back on the love I still have for this incredible TV show, I hope all of you will find a friend, turn off your cell phones, and run to the nearest television with a box of tissues, a piece of cheesecake, and an open mind. Now, take a deep breath and let's look back on 30 Years of Love and Laughter.
The Golden Girls first premiered on September 14, 1985, with an episode titled "The Engagement". That was back when there was a fifth Golden Girl; a man named Coco and Sophia's hair and glasses were meant to make people believe she was a frail and senile old woman (whoops). This was also back when Bea Arthur was displayed to the audience as "Beatrice". This episode introduced us to Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy who were already sharing Blanche's house when Dorothy's elderly mother, Sophia, joins them after her nursing home, the infamous "Shady Pines" burns to the ground under mysterious circumstances. Blanche also accepts a marriage proposal from a man who turns out to be a bigamist and is arrested before the two of them are able to tie the knot, but we all know the main focus of the episode is the fact that there are now four women, of radically different backgrounds and personalities, sharing one home in Dade County, Florida.
Seven seasons aired on NBC between 1985 and 1992, and in that time the American people fell in love with this extraordinarily talented and hilarious group of relatable women. I wasn't exactly sure how I would convey just how much these women meant to me and to so many people around the world. I figured out the best way was to start individually with the women and then work back to the group as it's remembered today.
THE LADIES: Bea Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak
Bea Arthur was just coming off the success of Maude, the spin-off of All in the Family, where she played the titular character. Before Katniss Everdeen, before Claire Underwood, before Emma Swan, and before Annalise Keating, there was Maude: an outspoken, middle-aged, liberal woman living in New York. Maude was the most prominent feminist icon of the 1970's. She fearlessly showed her support of women's liberation, the Democratic Party, legal abortion, and civil rights in a time where it was not nearly as accepted for a woman to do so. It was her overbearing nature and inability to be taken down that constantly put her in trouble when attempting to fight for what she believed was right. The show, coincidentally, also introduced America to the comedic chops of Bea's future Golden Girls co-star, Rue McClanahan.
Reluctant to do the show at first, it was Rue McClanahan who convinced her dear friend, Bea Arthur, to take on the role of substitute teacher and divorcee, Dorothy Zbornak. A decision that Bea would later admit was one of the best she ever made. I have to say, I full heartedly agree.
Dorothy Zbornak, hmm, what can a person say about another fearless, wise, independent, courageous, heart-warming character once again played by Beatrice Arthur. I think that says it all right there. She was, without a doubt, the brains of the group, the leader. She was their strength and she was their hope for the future. Whenever they were in doubt, they could always look to Dorothy for guidance. She was not without her vulnerabilities though she sometimes played it off as if she didn't have any. In the two-parter episode, "Sick and Tired" Dorothy is subject to extreme fatigue, that could not be resolved by bed rest or medication. She knew something was terribly wrong, but no doctor could tell her what. However, one doctor simply and rather rudely explained to her that she was just getting old. Our hearts broke when we saw the look on her face when she finally realized that she wasn't crazy and that it wasn't just age, she, in fact, had a disorder called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. And later on, when she was able to confront the doctor who shamed her about her age, we cheered alongside her and shared in that deeply personal victory.
Following The Golden Girls, Bea Arthur made several guest appearances on various television shows including Malcolm In The Middle, The Comedy Central Roast of Pamela Anderson, Futurama, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and later, she toured in her own one-woman show, An Evening With Bea Arthur as well as And Then There's Bea.
Bea Arthur passed away due to cancer on April 25, 2009. She was 86.
THE LADIES: Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo
Estelle Getty never really found the kind of success she enjoyed after her time on The Golden Girls, nor did she before. And although she was only a year younger than Bea Arthur, she was chosen by the team to portray her mother; a woman twenty years her senior.
Sophia Petrillo was the common sense of the group. She gave it to them straight, she didn't hold back, and she knew what they needed to hear even if they didn't want to hear it. She was the mother we all wanted, the mother many of us so desperately needed, and occasionally, the one we were glad we didn't have. For me personally, I found a kindred spirit inside Sophia Petrillo. I found a voice for the things I wished I could say but was always too afraid to say them. When it comes to emotional episodes, the pinnacle for Sophia in my opinion comes in the gut-wrenching series finale, "One Flew Out of the Cuckoo's Nest" During an emotional farewell between Rose and Blanche on the lanai, Sophia emerges from the house to take a polaroid of what she believes is Dorothy and her fiancee, Blanche's Uncle, Lucas Hollingsworth, kissing passionately, but is actually Blanche and Rose embracing one another like sisters. As the two ladies excuse themselves from the lanai, Sophia holds the polaroid in her hand and reminisces about her "girls". It is truly one of the most heart-breaking moments ever captured on television.
I could think of no better way to honor her memory than with a compilation of Sophia's classic line, "Picture It"
Following the massive success of The Golden Girls, Estelle, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan all reprised their roles for the short-lived spin-off, The Golden Palace. Estelle also stole the show in the 1993 film, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot starring alongside Sylvester Stallone. She would later appear on Empty Nest from 1993 to 1995.
Estelle Getty passed away on July 22, 2008, after a long battle with Lewdy Body Dementia. She was 84.
THE LADIES: Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux
Being my personal favorite of the group, this section has been a bit of an emotional burden to work through.
Like Bea Arthur, Rue's early mainstream success came with Maude, where she portrayed Maude's best friend, Vivien Harmon. A character most would describe as much more like the role Betty White would later go on to play on The Golden Girls.
Departing from Vivien Harmon, Rue convinced the casting director of the show to try her out as Blanche instead of Rose, the role she was originally intended to play. The decision to swap their roles would later on be instrumental in bringing Bea Arthur into the fold. Blanche represented sexiness, allure, and the desire to be better than ones own limitations. I found an insurmountable amount of courage by watching Blanche be who she was born to be, fearlessly and without restriction, I loved her for being that person. When speaking of Blanche's highlight in the series, there can only be one episode that truly sums up why everyone so greatly loved her. The Season Six episode, "Mrs. George Devereaux" explores the possibility that Blanche never foresaw when her husband George, long believed to be dead, returns to seek her forgiveness and ask her to be his wife again. The episode features guest appearances by Sonny Bono and Lyle Wagner as themselves, pining for Dorothy's affections. The real sadness of the episode comes just after Blanche, who agreed to be with George again, awakes from a recurring dream and realizing that George is still gone.
Showing what every person wants, to be reunited with a loved one they thought lost forever and then taking them away, the episode became one of the most brutally honest portrayals of post-death grief, ever explored on television.
Rue would later go on to star in The Golden Palace with Estelle Getty and Betty White. She made several memorable guest appearances on TV programs such as Mama's Family, King of the Hill, and Law & Order. Her final acting role came with the 2008 Logo TV Series, Sordid Lives.
Rue McClanahan died on June 3, 2010, after she suffered a brain hemorrhage. She was 76.
THE LADIES: Betty White as Rose Nylund
It almost goes without saying that no other woman or man has had the career that Betty White has. From her time on radio, to her guest appearances on Hollywood on Television a show she would later go on to host, her first sitcom that came in the form of a expanded sketch that would later be called, Life With Elizabeth, a show giving her career the boost it needed to get where she is today. Her time on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as the man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens would help later on when casting decisions had to be made for The Golden Girls.
Swapping the cast-type with Rue McClanahan, Betty White landed the role of her career with St. Olaf, Minnesota native, Rose Nylund. Rose was the representation of naivety and innocence. Rose was the embodiment of childlike wonder that all adults enviably feel but cannot express. Like her three roommates, Rose was unafraid to fully be who she was, even if it made her seem dumb and irrelevant. In the episode "Break-In", Betty White showcases a raw emotional side to Rose that nobody saw coming. After their home is robbed, Rose becomes so fearful of the robbers returning, she goes to extreme lengths to protect herself, such as buying a gun and nearly shooting Blanche. She has to come to terms with the fact that she is not okay and that she does need help to overcome her fear. After subduing a parking attendant she mistook for a predator, she has a revelation that she can defend herself if necessary.
Betty White's success would only intensify after her time on The Golden Girls. She landed guest spots on numerous television shows including Ally McBeal, The Ellen Show, My Wife and Kids, That 70's Show, Joey, and Malcolm in the Middle. She lent her voice to animated programs such as The Simpsons, King of the Hill, The Wild Thornberrys, Hercules, and a rather memorable spot reading erotic fiction on Family Guy. In 1999, she stole the show in Lake Placid as Mrs. Bickerman, a widow raising the monster-like crocodile inhabiting the lake.
Career resurgence came quickly for Betty White after landing supporting roles in comedy films like The Proposal with Sandra Bullock, and You Again with Jamie-Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver. A Snickers ad for Super Bowl XLIV featured Betty nailing yet another unforgettable comedic performance. Facebook would later go on to host the fan campaign to get Betty White to host Saturday Night Live, which she did and was met with phenomenal success. She returned to sitcoms with one of the main roles on the TV Land show, Hot In Cleveland, a turn that put her in the shoes of former Golden Girls co-star, Estelle Getty.
Following the series finale of Hot In Cleveland, Betty White remains as dedicated and relevant as ever. She's due to appear in the forthcoming season of Bones as the Jeffersonian's newest squintern.
One Enormous Happy Family: Thank You For Being Our Friends
I think I speak for nearly every fan of the show when I say there were moments when The Golden Girls helped pull people through some of the worst times in their lives. When we were alone, they were our friends. When we needed hope, they gave it to us. A debt that can never truly be repaid. Without a doubt, The Golden Girls will continue to capture the minds and hearts of dedicated TV aficionados for many, many years to come. I look forward to another 30 years from now when I can do this all over again and take another trip to Miami, have lunch on the lanai, eat big pieces of cheesecake, and become deeply enthralled in the lessons of life I surely couldn't live without.