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What Was So Unusual About the Casting of “The Golden Girls”?

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

Whether you’ve seen one episode of The Golden Girls or all 180, it’s hard to forget the memorable characters at the center of the show: Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan, born Feb. 1934), Rose Nylund (Betty White, born Jan. 1922), Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur, born May 1922), and Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty, born July 1923).

The premise of the iconic sitcom is that the four single women, having been previously divorced or widowed, share a home in Miami. While Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy are supposed to be in their mid-50s at the show's start, Sophia (Dorothy's mother) is supposed to be nearly 80.

Estelle Getty, who portrayed Sophia on "The Golden Girls,” was a year younger than Bea Arthur, who played her on-screen daughter, Dorothy.
Estelle Getty, who portrayed Sophia on "The Golden Girls,” was a year younger than Bea Arthur, who played her on-screen daughter, Dorothy.

Notice anything strange? The show took the unusual step of casting Estelle Getty as the blunt, wise-cracking octogenarian Sophia, even though she was only 62 when The Golden Girls premiered in 1985. In fact, Getty was younger than both Betty White and Bea Arthur, the latter of whom played her on-screen daughter. Unsurprisingly, it took a significant amount of effort from the makeup department (plus help from thick glasses and a white wig) to age the actress up, especially when Getty reportedly got a facelift after the show’s first season completed filming.

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  • Though the show’s creators had originally intended for Sophia to be an occasional presence on The Golden Girls, she was so popular with test audiences that Getty's role was changed to series regular. In the pilot episode, Sophia joins her daughter (and her housemates) in Miami after her retirement home burns down.

  • Though you wouldn’t know it from watching her performance, Estelle Getty suffered from severe stage fright throughout the show’s run and eventually used cue cards to help her remember her lines. Despite this, Getty reprised the role of Sophia in The Golden Girls spinoffs The Golden Palace, Empty Nest, and Nurses.

  • Getty was a staunch supporter of the LGBT community and was involved in HIV/AIDS activism, including opening a hospice for AIDS patients in Greensboro, North Carolina.

  • During its seven seasons on NBC, The Golden Girls received numerous awards, including the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series and three Golden Globes for Best TV Series—Musical or Comedy. Arthur, White, McClanahan, and Getty each received at least one Emmy for their performances.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • Estelle Getty, who portrayed Sophia on "The Golden Girls,” was a year younger than Bea Arthur, who played her on-screen daughter, Dorothy.
      By: Alan Light
      Estelle Getty, who portrayed Sophia on "The Golden Girls,” was a year younger than Bea Arthur, who played her on-screen daughter, Dorothy.