‘Golden Girls’ Star Rue McClanahan Played Instrumental Role in Getting Bea Arthur on Show

by Suzanne Halliburton

Rue McClanahan leaned on her friendship with Bea Arthur to make the Golden Girls complete.

It seems that McClanahan and Betty White proved to be the first two perfect Golden Girls. But after the two auditioned, show creator Susan Harris requested that McClanahan do the show a favor.

Harris wanted Arthur as Dorothy. After all, the part was written for Arthur, who’d won an Emmy for her work on Maude. But although NBC initially looked elsewhere for Dorothy, Harris definitely wanted Arthur.

But a cast change prompted Arthur to change her mind. That’s where McClanahan stepped in. First, some Golden Girls background. You can even use these morsels of info the next time the show comes up in a trivia contest. There’s been even more interest in the show these days as fans mourn the death of Betty White. She died of a stroke, Dec. 31, 18 days short of her 100th birthday. White was known most for Golden Girls and the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The show really wanted Betty White, but not as naive Rose Nylund, but saucy Blanche Devereaux. White played a similar role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. White was Sue Ann Nivens, who hosted a happy homemaker show. But Nivens, who was single, loved men. She was hot for Lou Grant. And on her first episode, Sue Ann seduced Phyllis’ husband, Lars. White once described her character as the “neighborhood nympho.”

However, Golden Girls directors had a different idea once White and McClanahan arrived for their auditions. Although McClanahan was there to read for Rose, directors switched up the parts. They tested McClanahan for Blanche and White for Rose. It was perfection.

Then Harris made her request to McClanahan. And the legendary Blanche Devereaux recalled the exchange she had with Arthur while speaking at PaleyFest LA in 2006.

“They heard us read,” McClanahan said. “And the next thing I know, I’m getting called by Susan Harris saying is there anything you can do to get Bea Arthur to do this show because we’d worked together on Maude.”

She told Harris: “I’d been wanting to work with her again. I’ll give her a call.” Then McClanahan chastised Arthur when she reached her. “What is the matter with you, this is the best script you’re ever going to read,” McClanahan told Arthur.

Then McClanahan mimicked Arthur’s famously deep voice. ‘Rue, I’m not interested in doing Maude and Vivien meet Sue Ann Nivens.’ So McClanahan explained that the roles were switched. “No, it’s the other way around. I’m playing the vamp, Betty is playing the nitwit.”

Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

That was enough to entice Arthur the Golden Girls way. And the rest, as they say, is golden TV history. Maybe it was the best ensemble cast in TV history. The three women, plus Estelle Getty as Sophia, each won an acting Emmy during the show’s run from 1985-92.

It’s difficult to imagine McClanahan as Rose or White as Blanche. Or the Golden Girls without Arthur.

White had been the last Golden Girls survivor. Getty died in 2008, followed by Arthur in 2009 and McClanahan in 2010. But in our collective imagination, they’re always sitting at the kitchen table, gossiping and eating cheesecake.