Estelle Getty, the actress best known to television audiences for playing outspoken Sophia Petrillo on NBC’s The Golden Girls, has passed away. She was 84 years old and died this morning, just three days short of her 85th birthday. She was surrounded by family and friends. Getty is survived by her two adult sons (Carl and Barry), a brother, a sister, and legions of grateful viewers and fans.
Getty was a veteran of stage for many years prior to being cast on The Golden Girls. She had struggled for many years, taking low-paying office jobs to help support her family between acting work. Her most notable role was playing Harvey Fierstein’s mother in Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway.
The tiny actress auditioned for the role of spunky Sophia three times before getting the role. She was one year younger than Bea Arthur and it was felt that she had too much energy for the part. For her third audition, Getty wore an oversized thrift store dress and old age make-up and she soonafter won the role. Sophia was supposed to be just a recurring character but the pilot audience loved her so much that she became a regular. Getty was nominated for an Emmy award for each of the show’s seven years on NBC and won in 1988.
When Golden Girls ended, Getty and co-stars Betty White and Rue McClanahan tried to do a spin-off without Arthur called The Golden Palace on CBS. It wasn’t very successful and was cancelled after a year. Getty’s character moved back to her old Miami neighborhood and became a regular on the Golden Girls spin-off Empty Nest for that show’s final two seasons. Getty had also played Sophia on an episode of NBC’s Nurses and Blossom. How many people have played the same character on five different shows?
Once Empty Nest ended, Getty made occasional appearances on series like Mad About You, Touched by an Angel, and Newhart, and played Grandma Little in the Stuart Little film. In 1996, she played herself alongside White and McClanahan on a Golden Girls-themed episode of The John Larroquette Show.
Appropriately enough, Getty’s last acting appearance came in 2000 in a series called Ladies Man as a character named Sophia (though with a different last name). Her former co-stars White, McClanahan, and Park Overall (from Empty Nest) also appeared on various episodes of the series.
In 2000, Estelle retired from acting and stopped making public appearances. She was initially believed to have Parkinson’s Disease and osteoporosis, and then Alzheimer’s Disease. It was later learned that she had Lewy Body Dementia whose symptoms are very similar to both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. She was widowed in 2004 and lived comfortably at home in Los Angeles under the care of close friend Paul Chapdelaine. Getty was particularly missed for tributes like the 2003 Golden Girls reunion on Lifetime and the recent TV Land Awards ceremony.
On her website today, Chapdelaine wrote, “For us here, who have known and cared for her for so many years, we’ve lost our dear little friend who always kept us entertained by filling our days with joyful laughter…Estelle was a fighter. She always stood up for the underdogs, fought for equality for all, and always pictured a world filled with “Love and Laughter” — her most favorite catch phrase. Estelle, we love you and will miss you dearly.”
Of her TV mom, Arthur said today, “Our mother-daughter relationship was one of the greatest comic duos ever, and I will miss her.”