‘Golden Girls’: Rue McClanahan, Betty White Emotionally Spoke on Estelle Getty’s Battle with Dementia in 2006

by Suzanne Halliburton

Everyone adored the Golden Girls. So it hurt when three of the four stars passed away. It was like a member of the family had died.

Estelle Getty, who played sassy Sophia, Dorothy’s 80-something mother, was the first to pass. And Getty, who was so full of moxie, lost most of her memory in her later years because she suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, a degenerative condition similar to Alzheimer’s. Getty was three days from her 85th birthday when she died, July 22, 2008.

Getty came up in 2006 during a question and answer panel discussion as part of PaleyFest LA. That year, the Fest, sponsored by the Paley Center for Media, was devoted to all things Golden Girls. Betty White (Rose) and Rue McClanahan (Blanche) were there, as were many of the show’s writers, producers and directors.

Estelle Getty Didn’t Remember Golden Girls Co-Stars

A fan asked White and McClanahan if they still talked to Getty.

“We try and stay in touch with her,” McClanahan said. “But it’s not (really) being in touch. She’s usually, she’s out of touch. When I call her from New York she usually doesn’t know who I am.”

Then McClanahan nodded to White: “And I was told by somebody after you’d been to visit her, three years ago, after you left, she said to her caretaker, ‘That was a nice woman.'”

But White said Getty still had lucid moments.

“Just recently I spoke to her, it’s like a blowing curtain,” White said. “Some days are better. Paul, her caretaker, said, ‘Would you like to speak to her?’ And I said, really? She came on the phone and, ‘Yes, oh, yes, Betty.’ She put it together.”

“Some days [are] good,” White said of her fellow Golden Girls star. McClanahan responded: “I’m so glad to hear that.”

Bea Arthur, who played Dorothy, was scheduled to appear at PaleyFest 2006. But organizers said illness prevented her from participating.

Getty Got Her First Big Acting Break at 59

Unlike her other Golden Girls co-stars, Estelle Getty found acting success relatively late in life. Although she played the oldest character on the show, she was in the same age range as everyone else. Bea Arthur actually was older than Getty, her mother.

A good wig, a pair of glasses and some thick makeup helped Getty pull off octogenarian chic. Getty’s acting break came when she was 59, when she began playing Mrs. Beckoff in the Broadway production of Torch Song Trilogy. Three years later, show creators wanted her for Sophia on the Golden Girls.

The show ran from 1985-92. And all four Golden Girls won Emmys. Sadly, only Betty White, who is 99, still is alive. Bea Arthur passed way in 2009, with McClanahan dying a year later.

But reruns on cable networks and streaming services keep the Golden Girls alive and thriving. The fan who asked about Estelle Getty also told White and McClanahan that any time he felt down, he turned to an episode of Golden Girls for an emotional boost. It’s always a mood booster.