We’re in the midst of a Golden Girls Renaissance these days; it seems like entire cable networks are devoted to showing it in reruns. I’m sure this is why it occurred to me to do something on Estelle Getty (Estelle Scher, 1923-2008). When Golden Girls originally aired, I frankly wasn’t much inclined to look at a sit-com about a bunch of old ladies, much as I loved and respected some of the cast members. But in recent months, I chanced to tune into some of these tv marathons, and, discovered that, damn, the writing and acting on the show is so jaw-droppingly funny. And yes, it’s significant that the show’s about a previously overlooked demographic (female senior citizens), blah blah blah, but why waste your time if it isn’t very good? But it was very good.
Getty, people delight in pointing out, was actually younger than Bea Arthur, who played her daughter. But she was petite and compact, and earthy and urban in that first generation immigrant way, which gave one the impression that she was from an earlier generation. And her professional background was very old school. She is said to have gotten her start doing Yiddish theatre, and performing in Catskills resorts.
She was nearly 40 when she got her first big break, playing the mother in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway (1982-1985). At the same time, she began to get small roles in movies like Tootsie (1982) and Mask (1985). The Golden Girls debuted in 1985; that show and its sequels and spin offs kept her employed for a decade. And Getty was pretty great on the show, although, I will say my comparison to Grandma Moses is apt in ways beyond her mere age. Like the famous folk painter, she was a “natural”. She worked in the role because she was perfect for it and she could deliver a funny line. By comparison, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan were histrionic professionals, who could chew scenery and manufacture tears by the bucketful. (Betty White is also an actress but her character on the show, like Getty’s, was more of a joke machine). Getty could do this one thing, and people loved her so much she became a surprise star as a result of the series, even winning an Emmy in 1988. But, I think you’ll notice, in scenes that require depth and pathos, she was uncomfortable with it. She’d much rather bark a salty line.
Getty continued to do guest shots on television until the turn of the century, and was in a couple of notable movies. Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) with Sylvester Stalone has been excoriated by critics as one of the worst movies ever (it earned an astounding 4% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). And she played Grandma Estelle in the modern family classic Stuart Little (1999). When she passed away, three days prior to her 85th birthday, she was finally reaching the age of her Golden Girls character, which she’d begun playing when she was only 62.