Estelle Getty, the diminutive actress who spent 40 years struggling for success before landing a role of a lifetime in 1985 as the sarcastic octogenarian Sophia on TV’s “The Golden Girls,” died Tuesday at her Hollywood home. She was 84.
Getty suffered from advanced dementia said her son, Carl Gettleman.
“The Golden Girls,” featuring four female retirees sharing a house in Miami, grew out of NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff’s belief that television was ignoring its older viewers.
Three of its stars had already appeared in previous series: Bea Arthur in “Maude,” Betty White in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Rue McClanahan in “Mama’s Family.” The last character to be cast was Sophia Petrillo, the feisty 80-something mother of Arthur’s character.
When she auditioned, Getty was appearing on stage in Hollywood as the carping Jewish mother in Harvey Fierstein’s play “Torch Song Trilogy.” In her early 60s, she flunked her “Golden Girls” test twice because it was believed she didn’t look old enough to play 80.
“I could understand that,” she told an interviewer a year after the show debuted. “I walk fast, I move fast, I talk fast.”
She came prepared for the third audition, however, wearing dowdy clothes and telling an NBC makeup artist, “To you this is just a job. To me it’s my entire career down the toilet unless you make me look 80.” The artist did, Getty got the job and won two Emmys.
It culminated a long struggle for success during which Getty worked low-paying office jobs to help support her family while she tried to make it as a stage actress.
“I knew I could be seduced by success in another field, so I’d say, ‘Don’t promote me, please,’“ she recalled.
She also appeared in small parts in a handful of films and TV movies during that time, including “Tootsie,” ‘‘Deadly Force” and “Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story.”
After her success in “The Golden Girls,” other roles came her way. She played Cher’s mother in “Mask,” Sylvester Stallone’s in “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot” and Barry Manilow’s in the TV film “Copacabana.” Other credits included “Mannequin” and “Stuart Little” (as the voice of Grandma Estelle).
“The Golden Girls,” which ran from 1985-92, was an immediate hit, and Sophia, who began as a minor character, soon evolved into a major one. When NBC canceled the show, it was reborn for a year as “Golden Palace” on CBS.
Audiences particularly loved the verbal zingers Getty would hurl at the other three. When McClanahan’s libidinous character Blanche once complained that her life was an open book, Sophia shot back, “Your life’s an open blouse.”
Getty had gained a knack for one-liners in her late teens when she did standup comedy at a Catskills hotel. Female comedians were rare in those days, however, and she bombed.
Undeterred, she continued to pursue a career in entertainment, and while her parents were encouraging, her father also insisted that she learn office skills so she would have something to fall back on.
Born Estelle Scher to Polish immigrants in New York, Getty fell in love with theater when she saw a vaudeville show at age 4.
She married New York businessman Arthur Gettleman (the source of her stage name) in 1947, and they had two sons, Carl and Barry. The marriage prevailed despite her long absences on the road and in “The Golden Girls.”
Getty was evasive about her height, acknowledging only that she was “under 5 feet and under 100 pounds.”
In addition to her son Carl, Getty is survived by son Barry, a brother and a sister.