The pilot episode of The Golden Girls was first aired on Saturday, September 14, 1985 on NBC. The first show was entitled “The Engagement” and centered around Blanche (Rue McClanahan) announcing her engagement to her boyfriend Harry (guest Frank Aletter). Rose (Betty White) and Dorothy (Bea Arthur) are worried about where they’ll live after Blanche is married and feel uneasy about Harry. Meanwhile, Dorothy’s mother Sophia (Estelle Getty) arrives after her retirement home, Shady Pines, has burned down. Blanche’s wedding doesn’t go through because Harry is arrested — for bigamy! Blanche is crushed, until she realizes the value of the “family” she already has. The audience loved the show and the “girls” were on their way.
Interestingly, there was another main character in the pilot episode. “Coco” was played by Charles Levin and was originally intended to be the housemates’ gay cook (could they realistically afford that?). Sophia was intended to be a reoccurring guest but the test audience reaction was so positive to the character that Estelle Getty’s role was increased. Sophia took over the role of providing snappy comments and moved in with the girls. Coco was never mentioned after the pilot episode.
During its extremely popular run of 180 half hours, The Golden Girls received over 60 Emmy nominations and won 10 Emmy Awards (twice for Best Comedy series), four Golden Globe Awards, and two Viewers for Quality Television Awards. The entire regular cast won Emmy Awards for their performances on the show. All In The Family and Will & Grace are the only other shows to match this record.
As might be expected, the series had a great number of writers over the years, in addition to series creator Susan Harris. The writing staff was quite consistent for the first four years of the show, headed by Kathy Speer and Terry Grossman. Laverne & Shirley writer Marc Sotkin took over as head writer for the last three years to varying success. Other writing alumni include Emmy Award winner Mitchell Hurwitz, who later created Arrested Development, and Frasier’s Christopher Lloyd. Marc Cherry, who went on to create Desperate Housewives, was also a writer on the series and eventually became the showrunner in 1990. Cherry has frequently credited his experiences on Golden Girls as being a key contributor to his later success.
The sitcom was consistently and incredibly popular in the ratings in its first six seasons. It landed in the top ten of the Annual Nielsen ratings each year.
In the Spring of 1990, another one of NBC’s popular Saturday night sitcoms (227), went off the air and left a hole in NBC’s schedule. NBC had a difficult time filling the now vacant Saturday 8pm timeslot. As a last resort, they moved Golden Girls from its usual 9pm slot to 8pm EST. As a result of the time change, inconsistent writing and the series’ age, the series fell to 30th place in the ratings.
It was during this seventh season that Bea Arthur decided that she didn’t want to do an eighth season. The other ladies were willing to continue but Bea felt that they’d done all that they could do with the characters and, as she had done with with Maude, didn’t want to stay on the air too long.