LOS ANGELES (AP) - 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 at about 5:30
a.m. Tuesday at her Hollywood Boulevard home, said her son, Carl
Gettleman of Santa Monica.
"She was loved throughout the world in six continents, and if
they loved sitcoms in Antarctica she would have been loved on seven
continents," her son said. "She was one of the most talented
comedic actresses who ever lived."
"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 Rue McClanahan in "Mama's Family." The last character to be
cast was Sophia Petrillo, the feisty 80-something mother of
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
"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 makeup 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.
It 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."
Getty had gained a knack for one-liners in her late teens when
she did standup 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
Born Estelle Scher to Polish immigrants in New York, Getty fell
in love with theater when she saw a vaudeville show at age 4.
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."
Getty was evasive about her height, acknowledging only that she
was "under 5 feet and under 100 pounds."
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.
Associated Press Writer Robert Jablon contributed to this
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)