Estelle Getty, ‘Golden Girls’ Matriarch, Dies at 84

July 23, 2008

Estelle Getty, whose portrayal of a crabbily charming octogenarian on the television sitcom “The Golden Girls” gave new prominence to elderly characters in prime time and endeared her to viewers of all ages, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. She was 84.

Her son Carl Gettleman confirmed her death. Ms. Getty had been suffering from Lewy body dementia, a progressive brain disease.

Long before “Golden Girls” Ms. Getty had been portraying maternal types of all sorts on the stage.

“I am the mother,” she declared in her opening line in “Torch Song Trilogy,” Harvey Fierstein’s 1981 play about the travails of a gay man in New York City, and as a summary of her career, her character was right.

“I’ve played mothers to heroes and mothers to zeroes,” Ms. Getty wrote in her autobiography, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now ... So What?” (Contemporary Books, 1988). “I’ve played Irish mothers, Jewish mothers, Italian mothers, Southern mothers, mothers in plays by Neil Simon and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. I’ve played mother to everyone but Attila the Hun.”

The book was a response to Ms. Getty’s sudden and resounding popularity in the most famous of her mother roles, the tart-tongued, white-haired Sophia Petrillo, oldest of the four previously married women sharing a Miami home in “The Golden Girls.” In the show, Sophia was the mother of Dorothy Zbornak, played by Bea Arthur who, in real life, was older than Ms. Getty.

Sophia, characterized by her bluntness and cranky lamentations about old age, treated her daughter with a kind of loving contempt, and their two roommates, the man-obsessed Blanche (Rue McClanahan), and the dim-witted Rose (Betty White), with the eye-rolling impatience of one who will not indulge the self-delusions of others. When Blanche complained that her life was an open book, Sophia witheringly replied: “Your life is an open blouse.”

The show ran from 1985 to 1992 and, in reruns, is still seen regularly on the Lifetime channel. Ms. Getty was nominated seven years in a row for an Emmy award for best supporting actress in a comedy series, winning in 1988. It was a remarkable coup for an actress then in her 60s who had worked for decades with almost no recognition at all.

Mr. Gettleman said in an interview Tuesday that his mother’s remark was, “After 50 years in the business, I’m an overnight success.”

Estelle Scher (she had no middle name) was born in Manhattan on July 25, 1923, the daughter of immigrants from Poland. Her father started a glass business that was eventually taken over by Arthur Gettleman, the man she would marry in 1947. Her stage name was derived from his.

A tiny woman, under 5 feet tall and less than 100 pounds, Ms. Getty wrote in her autobiography that her interest in acting began as a child when she saw her first vaudeville show; as a young woman she tried her hand at stand-up comedy. For most of her performing life, which she spent in community theaters, small theaters way off Broadway and regional houses, she made a living as a secretary.

In 1978, after seeing “The International Stud,” the first installment of what would become “Torch Song Trilogy,” she went backstage to introduce herself to the playwright and star, Mr. Fierstein, and they became friends. Some time later, she recalled in an 1984 interview, she said to him, “You’re such a hotshot playwright, why don’t you write a play with a mother in it, and I’ll play her.” That play turned out to be “Widows and Children First,” the concluding segment in the trilogy, and it changed her life. Rex Reed wrote in The New York Daily News that “Estelle Getty is the most endearing Jewish mother to be seen on the New York stage since Molly Picon, only prettier and more believable.”

The performance led to her being cast as Cher’s mother in the film “Mask,” and it was while she was on the road with “Torch Song” in Los Angeles that she auditioned for “Golden Girls,” getting the job after she showed up for the final audition in the costume and makeup of a little old lady.

Her husband died in 2004. In addition to Carl Gettleman, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., Ms. Getty is survived by another son, Barry Gettleman of Miami; a brother, David Scher of London; and a sister, Rosilyn Howard of Las Vegas.

Ms. Getty appeared in two “Golden Girls” spinoffs, “Empty Nest” and “The Golden Palace,” and acted in guest spots on a number of other series. She played Sylvester Stallone’s mother in the 1992 comedy “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.”

Ms. Getty relished her late-in-life success, her son said. And she enjoyed reminiscing about more difficult times. In a 1990 interview she recalled one of her last secretarial jobs, at a company called Snap-Out Forms, where she kept her acting ambitions a secret for fear of being fired.

“At Snap-Out Forms, the first day I came to work, I had an audition, and I said, ‘Can I go for my lunch at 10 o’clock?’ ” she said. “The next day I had to go someplace else. I said. ‘Can I take my lunch at 2:30?’ The next day I asked if I could take lunch at 11 o’clock. The office manager said, ‘You have the strangest eating habits of any secretary we’ve ever had.’ ”

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