Adored by fans as the tart-tongued octogenarian Sophia on the hit comedy series Golden Girls, Estelle Getty left a huge void in the heart of Hollywood when she died in 2008.
For years, Getty struggled quietly and eventually lost her life to a vicious disease. Getty’s birthday falls on July 25, let’s remember her as the stellar entertainer who still makes us laugh with her brilliant humor on reruns of Golden Girls.
The 1980s were fortuitous for Estelle Getty, who spent decades appearing on stage, hoping to get her big break.
Born in 1923, the New Yorker had her launchpad role in 1982 when she was cast in the Broadway production, The Torch Song. Her character was specifically designed by actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein, who also starred in the play as the son of Getty’s character.
Almost 60 at the time, Getty went on to play the lead role of Mrs. Beckhoff on and off Broadway for four years. Her performance in the play, about a drag queen living in New York, captured the attention of a production team that was looking for an older actor to play the matriarch of a special group of seniors in Florida.
The show was called The Golden Girls and pulled together Getty, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White, all of who would be immortalized for their comedic prowess and memorable performances in a show that entertained generations.
Using caked-on makeup and wigs, Getty–62 at the time–convincingly played the quick-witted Sophia Petrillo, a mother in her 80s to Arthur’s character, Dorothy, who was the roommate to Blanche (McClanahan) and Rose (White).
Getty, the mother of two, was married to Arthur Gettleman from 1947 to his death in 2004 and was only one year older than Bea Arthur when she played her TV mom.
Her perfectly-timed insults and endearing–though tough–personality made Getty a fan favorite, earning her a Daytime Emmy Award and a Golden Globe.
While starring in the comedy show, Getty had leading roles in hit films like Mannequin (1987), and 1992’s Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot with Sylvester Stallone.
In 1992, Bea Arthur was looking to pursue other opportunities so Golden Girls ended its seven-year run. Getty then reprised her role in Golden Palace, a show that ran one season in 1992, and later in Empty Nest (1988 to 1995), where former co-stars, White, McClanahan, and Arthur, also reprised their roles from The Golden Girls.
While appearing on the hit comedy, her Golden Girls castmates claimed that Getty was having a difficult time remembering lines and, according to McClanahan, who died in 2010, she had panic attacks on the set of the show.
“She had an awful time remembering lines because she would freeze, she panicked. She would start getting under a dark cloud the day before tape day. You could see a big difference in her on that day. By tape day, she was unreachable. She was just as uptight as a human being can get.” McLanahan shared of Getty, of tiny stature who stood less than 5 feet. “Finally, she asked for cue cards, which appalled us all, and at first the producers refused to stoop to such an unprofessional thing. But eventually, she had to be given cue cards for those deliciously funny Sophia stories.”
Getty was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a progressive brain disease often mistaken for Alzheimer’s, and her brilliant performances were burdened by its straining impact on her body.
Her health rapidly declined in 2000 and she was unable to participate in a Golden Girls reunion show in 2003.
Getty was 84 when she died in 2008, peacefully in her sleep.
Bea Arthur died one year later at 86, Rue McLanahan was 76 when she died in 2010, and the beloved Betty White died in 2021 at age 99.
“I kept in touch with Estelle as long as she could stay in touch, as long as she knew who I was,” McClanahan said. “I got a huge kick out of her, always. She told very funny stories about New York.”
We are so sad that the world lost Estelle Getty, and her co-stars of the Golden Girls, but are also very thankful the legendary actors shared their talents.