Actress Rue McClanahan passed away yesterday following a stroke. She was 76 years old. A talented actress, she starred in numerous stage productions, movies, and TV shows. Viewers welcomed McClanahan into their home each week as she played memorable characters like sex-crazed Blanche from The Golden Girls and The Golden Palace, ditzy Vivian on Maude, fussy Aunt Fran on Mama’s Family, and matriarch Peggy from Sordid Lives: The Series.
The actress was well-loved and respected by those she worked with. That’s certainly evident in these reflections.
Marc Cherry, the creator of Desperate Housewives, got his start as a writer on The Golden Girls and wrote for The Golden Palace as well. He said, “When I worked on The Golden Girls, my favorite character to write for was Blanche Devereaux. In the hands of lesser actresses, Blanche’s vanity and sexual appetite would have been off-putting. But in Rue’s brilliant hands, that character became one of the most beloved in the history of TV. Rue’s kindness, generosity and enormous talent will be sorely missed.”
Beth Grant, who worked with the actress on Sordid Lives: The Series, also guest-starred on two episodes of The Golden Girls. She said, “I loved her so much. I did a play called Picnic in Los Angeles with her [years ago], and she played the mom. It was my first big break. And she was so kind to me. And we did an out-of-town try-out in Denver, and I had told her that when I was a little girl, I had always wanted to go to Mardi Gras, because a lot of my friends had gone, and they had come back with these crystal beads, and how I always wanted those crystal beads. So opening night in Denver, she gave me the most gorgeous crystal beads that you have ever seen. I still have them. And she had forgotten all about it. When we did Sordid Lives, I reminded her. For her to bring that magic to it by remembering this silly little story I told, it was so special. It sounds so cliche, but she was the consummate professional. She had the best timing in the world, playing Blanche — as a southerner, believe me — to perfection. Her timing was so great. You could just feel if there was a funny moment coming on, she could send out a vibe to let you know to hold or to jump in. She could lead you to good timing as well. She was a comic genius. She really was. In every way. I miss her so much right now. She’s a magical person to me. I’m going to wear my crystal beads today, that’s what I’ve decided.”
Dustin Hoffman starred with McClanahan in the Broadway production of Jimmy Shine in 1968. He noted, “I have fond memories of working with Rue on Broadway in the ’60s, and I am saddened by her passing. My thoughts are with her family and friends.”
Leslie Jordan and McClanahan co-starred on Sordid Lives: The Series. The actor recalled, “I got really close in the twilight of Rue’s life. She’s one of the true Southern ladies. She showed up in Shreveport to play my mother on the series Sordid Lives with a portable sewing machine, and she wanted to make her own hats. She just said, ‘I just think that this lady would have made beautiful Sunday hats.’ We got so close, though, Rue and I. We did a tour of comedy from the show. She was in a wheelchair, I think after a hip replacement, and rather than stand-up comedy, she called it sit-down comedy. Honey, we wheeled her out [and] I thought we were going to have to get the hook! We said, ‘You have 20 minutes.’ Well, she had that audience on the palm of her hands. From the moment they wheeled her out. I thought, how are we going to get her off the stage? It was watching a master at her craft. She was Southern, and a storyteller, and she had a story for any occasion. Oh, she was something. One night, she came to me and said, ‘I just had a fight with my husband.’ I said, ‘About what, Rue?’ She was very upset, she said, ‘Well, we were watching Everyone Loves Raymond, and my husband said that he liked Patricia Heaton’s acting. And I said, yes, she’s a good actress, but her posture is terrible. And my husband said, “Oh, you always have something to say.” But I was just commenting that a lady should have good posture!’ So she’s fighting with her husband about Patricia Heaton’s posture. And I thought, that’s Rue right there. There are ways we handle ourselves. You can be a wonderful actress, but you have to have good posture as well. She was a lady, but she was a bawdy lady too. She could get down with the best of us. She was filthy. She will really be missed.”
John Larroquette worked with McClanahan on an episode of The John Larroquette Show. Betty White and Estelle Getty guested as well. It centered around a Golden Girls reunion and Larroquette played Bea Arthur. Of her passing, Larroquette wrote, “When Rue and I worked together she was always funny, lovely and a professional. She and her talent will be missed.”
Vicki Lawrence, who played cranky “Mama” to McClanahan’s prissy “Aunt Fran” on Mama’s Family, recalled, “Rue was a consummate professional, an actors’ actor. It was my good fortune to get the chance to work with her during the first season-and-a-half of Mama’s Family. When she got stolen away from Mama’s Family to do The Golden Girls, I cried.”
Norman Lear, the creator of Maude, noted, “I saw her off-Broadway and I brought her out here for Maude. This was one of the loveliest, funniest, most grounded… I don’t have good enough words for her. There are wonderful actors who can do comedy, and there are wonderful actors who can do comedy who are also funny. Rue was funny walking into a room. Her earlobes were funny. Her knuckles were funny. She was just funny.”
Caroline Rhea, another co-star from Sordid Lives: The Series, said, “I am very sad today about my dear friend Rue. I still cannot believe that I was lucky enough to have worked with her and have her as my friend. She was a comedic Goddess with the most impeccable timing. I will always treasure the time that I got to spend with her.”
Ben Vereen worked with McClanahan in Broadway’s Wicked. He recalled, “We have to celebrate the joy that she brought us. The life. I’m just so grateful that she touched my life, and for the time we had doing Wicked together. I admired her for so many years. And then there I was on stage with her. So I’m celebrating the life [and] the treasure that she is. And I say is, because she’s with us no more than she’ll ever be, because she’s with us in spirit. She was so loving in her humanness. You couldn’t help but want to be near her and feel her radiance and warmth.”
Betty White, a close friend and co-star from The Golden Girls, said, “Rue was a close and dear friend. I treasure our relationship. It hurts more than I ever thought it would, if that’s even possible.”
Paul Junger Witt, the executive producer of Golden Girls, said, “When a series is on as long as we were, with the same unit of people who have worked together for seven to eight years, you do become a family. A loss becomes very personal. It’s a very sad day. When shows come to an end, that’s a period of mourning. But to lose the ladies that we have — we still have Betty, thank God, who’s a treasure. But it’s a real loss. The afterlife of the show has been so extraordinary. Women are still visiting [the show] in their living rooms all over the world. Watching the four of those ladies work was certainly the highlight of those years. Every day to get to watch these four consummate performers, there’s nothing like it. She was an intuitively funny person. She was a force of joy for all of us. And we miss her already.”