‘Thank You for Being a Friend’: 15 Trivia Tidbits About ‘The Golden Girls’
Thanks to millennials and Gen-Zers, the 1980s sitcom hit The Golden Girls has enjoyed a revival since the early 2010s. The series made Betty White an even bigger star and cemented Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan in the annals of television royalty. It’s also the show with the most heartwarming opening theme song and the horniest geriatrics in comedy television history. So grab yourself some cheesecake, dish out a zinger to absolutely no one and read on about the making of The Golden Girls...
You Can Thank ‘Golden Girls’ for ‘Reservoir Dogs’
Before Quentin Tarantino became a big Hollywood director, he had a bit part as an Elvis impersonator at Sophia’s wedding on the show. Tarantino was largely unknown at the time, and even though he’s one of many Elvis impersonators in the scene, he makes sure he is seen once they all start singing.
“Before I did Reservoir Dogs, I had a very unsuccessful acting career,” Tarantino told Jimmy Fallon in 2020. “However, one of the few jobs I did get, and not because I did a wonderful audition, but simply because they sent my picture in and they said, ‘He’s got it!’ was for an Elvis impersonator on The Golden Girls. It became a two-part Golden Girls. So, I got paid residuals for both parts. And it was so popular they put it on a Best of The Golden Girls, and I got residuals every time that showed. So I got paid maybe, I don’t know, $650 for the episode, but by the time the residuals were over, three years later, I made like $3,000. And that kept me going during our pre-production time trying to get Reservoir Dogs going.”
Betty White Was Almost Blanche
Director Jay Sandrich initially wanted the late White to play the rather raunchy Southern belle Blanche Devereaux — largely thanks to White’s saucy performance as Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Rue McClanahan, in turn, initially auditioned for the part of Rose, but when she got a callback and read the part of Blanche with a Southern accent, Sandrich knew he had found his wealthy widow.
However, this led to White’s future in the sitcom hanging in the balance until Sandrich could convince White to take the part of Rose. “It probably wouldn’t have worked if anybody but Betty played Rose,” the director told Today, “because she is the one member of the main cast that didn’t have punchlines that she could just pass out. She had to project a realistic, you know, kind of version of a woman who was naive and unable to always understand what was going on. And it took a lot of different skills, comedic skills, and dramatic skills at once to pull off Rose. And it’s incredibly difficult in hindsight to imagine anyone else doing that role.”
The Creator’s Own Story
The Golden Girls was created by legendary TV creator and writer Susan Harris. Harris, who has been inducted into TV’s Hall of Fame, worked with Bea Arthur before GG on the 1970s series Maude and won the Humanitas Prize for writing the show’s abortion episode.
At some point during her career, Harris got really sick and, after reading up on it, thought that she had chronic fatigue syndrome (before it was diagnosed as an equally serious adrenal issue). Her symptoms made it extremely difficult for her to participate in the production of her most successful show, The Golden Girls. “I had all the symptoms (of chronic fatigue syndrome) but had very bad experiences with doctors, some of whom told me to dye my hair a different color and asked whether Paul and I were getting along in our marriage,” she shared with Vulture. Harris ended up writing “my revenge script” and venting her frustrations in the episode, “Sick and Tired,” that sees Dorothy Zbornak confronting her inept doctor after being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome herself.
Inspired by ‘Miami Vice’
Executive producer Paul Junger Witt told Vulture that the idea of a sitcom centering around four older women came from a story a bunch of NBC executives who told them about two older actresses performing Miami Nice (a play on Miami Vice) at a Florida convention. “It’s funny, when Paul said, ‘They’re thinking about doing a show with older women,’ it excited me,” Harris added. “I wasn’t writing at the time and wasn’t intending to again, but the word ‘older’ got me. I was figuring women who were 60 to 70, but when we went to the network, we found out that ‘older’ to them meant women in their 40s, which was astonishing to me because I think that’s what I was at the time. We managed to compromise at the women hovering around late-50, early-60s. But ultimately, their ages were never expressly mentioned.”
How George Clooney Got a Part on the Show
“We once got a call from George Clooney’s agent asking, ‘Do you have anything George might be right for? We need to get him a couple of gigs so he can keep up on his insurance in the guild,’” executive producer Tony Thomas revealed in the same interview. “The writers got the call, and so he was put in a show.”
“That was a fun show to work on,” Clooney shared with Drew Barrymore. “Bea Arthur is the funniest person in the world. They were all hysterically funny, but Bea Arthur really made me laugh. She was filthy, filthy funny.”
Sophia Was Supposed to Be a Guest Character
Dorothy’s 80-year-old widowed mother, Sophia Petrillo (played by the then 62-year-old Estelle Getty), was originally going to be a guest character with only occasional pop-up appearances. The lively Getty, however, tested so well with preview audiences that it was decided to make her a regular.
As for the ages, Getty was actually one year younger than White and Arthur, her own TV daughter, and it took makeup 45 minutes each day to turn Getty into the much older Sophia. In her memoir, If I Knew Then What I Know Now… So What?, Getty revealed that there were reservations about her being too young for the part, so she promptly decided to dye her hair, hire a makeup artist and make her look hella old for her callback audition.
The Fifth Character
The four sitcom friends are known for sitting around the kitchen table along with their unofficial fifth regular, a nice ol’ creamy cheesecake. It’s been reported that the actresses ate more than 100 cheesecakes throughout the show’s run, which sounds fantastic to most but wasn’t that much fun for Arthur, who apparently hated them. “Bea hated cheesecake. If you watch it carefully, you see her moving it around on the plate a lot, but it’s not that often that she puts it in her mouth,” writer and producer Barry Fanaro once revealed, adding that they had no idea at the time.
While McClanahan once admitted that she and Arthur didn’t get along that well — “Bea is a very, very eccentric woman; she wouldn’t go to lunch unless Betty would go with her” — she did share her fondness for White. “Betty and I loved word games, and we would play word games every day,” she gushed. “We had games going all the time off camera.”
The Friction Between Bea Arthur and Betty White
Multiple sources, however, have said that things weren’t always peachy between Arthur and White. Fanaro noted that the friction between the two was the only friction on the show, explaining that “Betty was a TV person — she was a really good actress, I think an underrated actress, she was amazing. But she also had done game shows and other sitcoms. She would do anything; she liked to perform. And she would perform to the audience. Bea was an animal of Broadway — that was, you came out, you stayed in character, you said your lines, you walked off, you got a drink, and you went home. But Betty would always prime it. If she dropped a line, she’d get up, and she’d walk to the audience and make them laugh. And it sort of irritated Bea. Not to the point where they would fight about it, but they were two totally different people, and Bea just thought it wasn’t Broadway to go and break character.”
This was acknowledged by Arthur’s son, too, who said, “My mom unknowingly carried the attitude that it was fun to have somebody to be angry at. It was almost like Betty became her nemesis, someone she could always roll her eyes about at work.”
Fun on Set
They did, of course, have their moments of fun on set. Watch this rehearsal involving White and the stage manager.
Sophia’s Dark Backstory
Some may have forgotten that the show introduced Dorothy’s sassy, no-filter mother by explaining that Sophia is the way she is thanks to some old-fashioned permanent brain damage. As Blanche tells Rose, Sophia had a stroke, and it was so bad that “it destroyed the part of her brain that censors what she says.” That is, in case anyone doesn’t know, one heck of a stroke.
Elaine Stritch Was Seriously Considered to Play Dorothy
Even though Harris literally wrote in the script that Dorothy was a “Bea Arthur-type,” the Two’s Company star was seriously considered for the part. “Elaine was someone we knew, respected and considered very, very, very seriously,” Thomas told Vulture. “She came out and read for us and was quite good. But Bea had an edge to her that we just found irresistible; the chemistry among the ladies was such that we ended up with the perfect foursome.” Stritch would eventually (and dramatically) address her GG audition in her one-woman show, “At Liberty.”
Keeping the Wardrobe
McClanahan had a clause in her contract that ensured she kept all of Blanche’s custom-made clothes when the show wrapped. It was reported that the late actor had 13 full closets of designer items from the series.
The Practical Joke
The prop department had fun with the calendar scene in “The Men of Blanche’s Boudoir,” and had the cast in tears. Watch the clip below.