On the Golden Girls, Estelle Getty stole just about every scene she was in, playing feisty, sarcastic Sophia, the mother of Dorothy and best friend to Blanche and Rose.
Yet, Golden Girls cast members said Getty was anything but confident when she played Sophia. She suffered from intense anxiety attacks. And she’d freeze up and forget her lines. This led to more issues.
Rue McClanahan, who played Blanche, the show’s Southern belle, said of Getty:
“She had an awful time remembering her lines because she would freeze and panic. The day before tape day, you could see a big difference in her. She’d be walking around like Pig-Pen under a black cloud. By tape day, she was unreachable.”
Estelle Getty, who played an octogenarian, actually was about the same age as the rest of the women. She was in her early 60s when she began playing Sophia. And, she even was a year older than Dorothy, her Golden Girls daughter played by Bea Arthur. But each day of taping, Getty needed extra hours in the makeup chair to age her two decades. She also used a wig, thick glasses and a more matronly wardrobe, including her straw purse, to pull off Sophia’s look.
She was the first Golden Girls actress cast by the show’s creators. So it’s no wonder Getty put additional pressure on herself.
Betty White said of her co-star:
“You thought, ‘She’s never going to be able to take a step on that stage.’ She’s one of the reasons for the success of the show with young people. They get such a kick out of little Estelle telling big Bea off!”
Sophia’s “Picture It” Stories Were Strong Golden Girls Highlights
Indeed, the quips between Sophia and Dorothy helped make the show into such a favorite with audiences. Sophia knew no filter. She often said the first thing that popped into her mouth. Dorothy even anticipated the barbs and playfully put her hand over her mother’s mouth, especially when the Golden Girls had company in town.
Through Sophia, the writers addressed society’s many issues, ranging from being gay, same-sex marriage, immigration, homelessness, teenage pregnancy and aging. Sophia’s son even was a cross-dresser. The Golden Girls had interactions with the president, Russians and movie stars.
The show ranked among the top 10 in the country for its first six years. It dropped to 30th in the ratings in its seventh and final season. Betty White marveled that most of the audience was young people.
And Getty earned an Emmy nomination for best supporting actress in each of the seven seasons. She won in 1988.
But next time you catch a rerun of the Golden Girls, remember how difficult it was for Estelle Getty to pull off all those scene-stealing it, “Picture It” anecdotes.