Rue McClanahan, the vivacious thesp best known as the libidinous Blanche Devereaux from “The Golden Girls,” died Thursday in New York of a brain hemorrhage. She was 76.
McClanahan was a breast cancer survivor who underwent triple bypass surgery and had a stroke last year.
Thesp won an Emmy in 1987 for her work on “Golden Girls,” which revolved around four older women sharing a house in Miami. McClanahan’s Blanche was a frequent target of wisecracks for her sexual prowess from the other characters, played by Betty White, Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty. McClanahan’s death leaves White as the last surviving member of the foursome. Getty died in 2008; Arthur died last year.
“Rue was a close and dear friend,” White said in a statement. “I treasured our relationship. It hurts more than I even thought it would, if that’s possible.”
During her long career on stage and TV, McClanahan often played brassy, headstrong Southern women. Her Blanche on “Golden Girls” borrowed characteristics from Blanche DuBois of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a role McClanahan played at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Born Eddi-Rue McClanahan in Healdton, Okla., she studied theater arts at the U. of Oklahoma and started on stage, working at the Pasadena Playhouse and on the Gotham boards.
During the 1960s, she mostly worked in legit, often off the Main Stem and in regional theater. Her Broadway debut was in 1969’s “Jimmy Sunshine” starring Dustin Hoffman.
She won an Obie in 1970 for her role as the other woman in Oliver Haily’s “Who’s Happy Now,” a part she reprised in the smallscreen adaptation. She kept her hand in legit, appearing as recently as 2005 in “Wicked” on Broadway as headmistress Madame Morrible.
For a few years she appeared in soaps such as the NBC’s “Another World,” where a bit part was extended to two years, and then later in the Eye’s “Where the Heart Is.”
She gravitated toward primetime starting with a recurring role on Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” and then co-starred with future “Golden Girls” co-star Arthur in the spinoff “Maude.” She also had a recurring role on sitcom “Mama’s Family” as Aunt Fran, playing alongside Vicki Lawrence, Carol Burnett and another future “Golden Girls” co-star, White.
“Rue was a consummate professional, an actor’s actor,” Lawrence said. “It was my good fortune to get the chance to work with her.”
McClanahan worked on the first two seasons of “Mama’s Family,” when it aired on NBC (the show later moved to firstrun syndication).
“When she got stolen away to do ‘Golden Girls,’ I cried,” Lawrence said.
“Golden Girls” ran for seven seasons on the Peacock and reunited McClanahan with Arthur and White. As an oversexed senior, she drew big laughs with zingers like: “I’m jumpier than a virgin at a prison rodeo” and “There is a fine line between having a good time and being a wanton slut. I know. My toe has been on that line.”
Paul Witt, one of the creators of “Golden Girls,” called McClanahan “an exquisite talent.”
“She was able to take what would have been risque in someone else and give it some innocence,” he said.
After “Golden Girls” ended its run in 1992, a spinoff, “Golden Palace,” had a brief run on CBS with McClanahan, White and Getty.
McClanahan’s many TV appearances included dozens of telepics and guests shots on such series as “Mannix,” “Lou Grant,” “Trapper John, M.D.,” “Fantasy Island,” “Newhart,” “Gimme a Break,” “Charles in Charge,” “Columbo,” “Touched by an Angel,” “Safe Harbor” and “Law and Order.” She toplined the ABC sitcom “Apple Pie” opposite Dabney Coleman that ran for two weeks in September 1978.
Her feature roles included “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Some of My Best Friends Are,” “Out to Sea” and “Starship Troopers.”
Off screen, McClanahan was a vegetarian who was an early Hollywood advocate for animal rights.
In 2007, McClanahan released a memoir, “My First Five Husbands … and the Ones Who Got Away.” In an echo of her “Golden Girls” character, she gave letter grades to the many men in her life, with thesps Robert Guillaume and Brad Davis earning A’s.
McClanahan was married and divorced from Tom Bish, Norman Hartweg, Peter D’Maio, Gus Fisher and Tom Keel. Her survivors include husband No. 6, Morrow Wilson, and a son, Mark Bish.