Estelle Getty, an actor best remembered for her Emmy Award-winning role on The Golden Girls as an abrasive octogenarian robbed of her "tact cells" after a stroke, died Tuesday (July 22, 2008) at her home in Los Angeles. She suffered from dementia and was 84.
The Golden Girls, a sitcom about senior citizens who share a Miami home, aired on NBC from 1985 to 1992. It twice won Emmy Awards for best comedy and has endured in syndication.
Ms. Getty was 61 when she portrayed Sophia with a white wig, large glasses and dowdy clothing. She was an important member of the show's acting quartet that also featured Bea Arthur as her dominating daughter.
The Golden Girls grew out of NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff's belief that television was ignoring its older viewers.
The last character to be cast for the show was Sophia Petrillo, the feisty 80-something mother of Arthur's character.
When she auditioned, Ms. Getty was appearing on stage in Hollywood as the carping Jewish mother in 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 said later. "I walk fast, I move fast, I talk fast."
She came prepared for the third audition, however, wearing dowdy clothes and telling a 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. Ms. Getty got the job and won two Emmys.
The Golden Girls was an immediate hit, and Sophia, who began as a minor character, soon evolved into a major one.
The other cast members were Betty White as a ditzy widow and Rue McClanahan as an oversexed Southern belle.
Audiences particularly loved the verbal zingers Ms. Getty would hurl at the other three. When McClanahan's character Blanche complained that her life was an open book, Sophia shot back, "Your life's an open blouse."
"I always told her she should be a standup comic. She was so funny in person," McClanahan said.
Ms. Getty 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.
Born Estelle Scher to Polish immigrants in New York, Ms. 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.
She was evasive about her height, acknowledging only that she was "under 5 feet and under 100 pounds."