Question: Please help me convince my husband he doesn't know what he's talking about. On The Golden Girls, how old was Estelle Getty? I always thought she was considerably younger than the character she played. Thank you. — Sarah W., Bakersfield, Cal.
Televisionary: As cagey as the actresses on the hit comedy played it in terms of discussing their ages, Sarah, it was widely known Getty was nearly 20 years younger than her 80-year-old character, the tart-tongued Sophia Petrillo. In early 1986, six months or so after the show's September 1985 debut on NBC, she was reported to be 62.
Getty herself would only tell TV Guide that she was not much older than her co-stars ("only they look better," she said) and those castmates — Bea Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan — had agreed that none of them would discuss the a-word on the record. ("We all decided immediately that we never would, because if one of us tells her age, then the others all have to talk about it," Arthur said in 1991.)
However, I can tell you that having her age disclosed was only one of the talented Getty's many worries. She took the usual actor's insecurity and multiplied it, worrying constantly that she'd be found out as a fraud. "It used to be that whenever I would walk onto a set or into a theater, I was always sure that someone would come over to me and say, 'Ooooh, you're not the lady. It was another lady. Ooooh, I'm sorry, they got your name mixed up," she said in 1986. In fact, after the show started, it was apparent there were too many characters to be juggled and one would have to be eliminated. Getty was certain it would come down to Sophia and Coco, the girls' flamboyant cook. "They couldn't write around that many people," she figured. "So one of us had to go, and I was sure it would be me." (I guess I don't need to tell you it was Coco.)
But the funny thing about that kind of self-doubt is, you're never alone in your suffering and you recognize it in others. "I remember saying something to a young doctor once," she recalled. "He was writing a prescription for me and I asked, 'How come you still bite your nails?' And he said, 'Oh, it's a habit left over.' And I said, 'You still bite your nails because you're afraid they're going to find out that you fluked your way through medical school and you're really not equipped to be doing the job that you're doing, right?' And he looked at me and said, 'How did you know that?' Every time I walk on stage, I'm afraid they're going to find me out."
Getty's fears stemmed mainly from the fact that while she began training at the age of 5, she only seriously pursued professional acting after getting married and raising kids. She'd done some community playhouse work, but once her sons were grown she began traveling to Manhattan and landing off-off-Broadway roles. That led to a lead in the first play of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy, guest spots on Cagney & Lacey and Fantasy Island, a gig as Cher's mom in Mask and then her job as one of the Girls.
Despite all that fear, Getty really didn't have much to worry about. "Oh, you should see her on taping night," co-star White said. "She makes herself miserable on show night, says she doesn't know why she's in this crazy business to begin with — and then goes out and gives a dynamite performance."
That she did, and so did her co-stars. Matter of fact, when TV Guide convened a panel of industry experts to come with a list of best and worst sitcoms in 1987, the Girls took first place for acting and chemistry and second place for writing and directing. No worries.
It was a good show, as fans will agree. From the magic pen of Soap creator Susan Harris, the show broke new ground in focusing on an entire cast of mature gals and laying it all out there no matter the topic — sex, relationships, politics, what have you. And of course, it was funny and so was Getty, whose Sophia suffered a stroke that destroyed the inner editor in her brain. When McClanahan's Blanche took her time with a tale of her dead husband, for example, Getty broke in with, "How long is this story? I'm 80. I have to plan."
That's the kind of wit that elevates a standard sitcom — the show was built with the usual set-up, payoff formula — into a delight even when it sticks to a tried-and-true structure. (Everybody Loves Raymond, at its best, does much the same thing.)
Mind you, even the stars themselves didn't necessarily buy that older ladies would choose to live together in such a situation. "No way. None of us would," Arthur confessed. "This is pure fairy tale."
Maybe so, but since it lasted until September 1992, earned strong ratings — of the top 100 shows of all time, it was number 33 — and then spawned a sequel (The Golden Palace) which stayed on the air for another year, it was a long and happy one.