The Golden Girls might never have charmed us for all these many years if not for a phone call from one potential cast member to another.
Let’s set the Golden Girls stage. It’s the mid-1980s and creator Susan Harris pitched a show to NBC. Harris’ script featured three middle-aged women. A fourth character was the sassy mother of one of the three women. They live together as roommates in Miami.
Choices for the cast were coming along. Rue McClanahan would play man-hungry widow Blanche, although Harris initially thought of McClanahan for another role. And Betty White would play ditzy, but chatty Rose. But what about tart-tongued, sarcastic divorcee Dorothy.
In a 2006 appearance at the Paley Fest LA, McClanahan said Harris called her, pleading with her to call Bea Arthur and get her on board with the Golden Girls. It made sense. McClanahan played Arthur’s neighbor and best friend on Maude, the 1970s sitcom created by Norman Lear. Meanwhile, Betty White was best known for playing Sue Ann Niven on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
What did McClanahan Say To Arthur To Sway Her the Golden Girls Way?
“I called Bea,” McClanahan tells the audience. “And I said what is the matter with you? This is the best script you’re ever going to read.”
And then McClanahan paused for dramatic effect. She dropped her voice an octave to mimic Bea Arthur.
“And she said ‘Rue, I’m not interested in doing Maude and Vivian meet Sue Ann Niven.’ I said ‘Noooooo, it’s the other way around. I’m playing the vamp. Betty’s playing the nitwit.’ (Arthur said) ‘Oh, that’s very interesting.’
“The next thing I know, the three of us are being called in to read for the network. And, we wowed them. Oh, what a happy day, what a happy day that was.”
Yes, what a happy day for TV fans everywhere when the Golden Girls got the go in 1985. Bea Arthur might’ve initially not wanted the part of Dorothy, but in another interview, she conceded she thought the show was deliciously good.
“I thought it was brilliant,” Arthur said in an interview with the Archive of American Television. “I thought it was one of the funniest, most adult, hilarious, sophisticated, terrific, delicious things I had ever read.”
The Golden Girls stayed on the air for seven golden years. The show received 68 Emmy nominations, winning 11 of them. All four cast members won an Emmy. It twice won the Emmy for best comedy.
Betty White, who is 99, is the lone surviving cast member. Estelle Getty died in 2008, Arthur passed away the next year. McClanahan died in 2010.
But the actresses and their characters live on in Golden Girls reruns. You can still taste the cheesecake and hear their conversations.