Estelle Getty was a very good mother.
The actress, whose knack for being cast as a maternal unit paid off handsomely when she was cast as Beatrice Arthur's no-holds-barred mother on the long-running TV hit The Golden Girls, died early today at her Los Angeles home, her son Carl Gettleman said.
Getty, who was three days shy of her 85th birthday, succumbed to Lewy Body Dementia, a disease with symptoms that mimic Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
A perennial award nominee for The Golden Girls, which ran for seven seasons, from 1985 to 1992, Getty won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her work as Sophia Petrillo, the shuffling octogenarian with the muted self-censor button who was never without her handbag—or a wisecrack.
Arthur said today she will miss her former costar.
"Our mother-daughter relationship was one of the greatest comic duos ever," Arthur said in a statement.
The onscreen relationship worked so well, in fact, that the casual viewer never suspected the offscreen truth that was masked by Getty's granny wig and glasses: The TV daughter was older than the TV mother. (Arthur was born, depending on the source, in either May 1923 or May 1922.)
Cast as the most senior of the show's Miami women of a certain age, Getty wasn't even the second oldest cheesecake-eating Golden Girl. Betty White, who played naive Rose, also was older than Getty.
Age 62 at the time of the show's premiere, Getty was the least-well-known member of the gang of four, which was rounded out by Rue McClanahan as the hot 'n' steamy Blanche. While her costars had all been prime-time fixtures on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (White) and Maude (Arthur and McClanahan), Getty had been but a bit player whose screen career had begun seven years prior.
Theater audiences, at least, were familiar with her work. In 1982, Getty earned a Drama Desk nomination for Torch Song Trilogy, the groundbreaking Harvey Fierstein play that put the middle-aged Getty on the road to "overnight" success.
In Torch Song, Getty played Fierstein's in-denial mother. Getty, by her own account, played the mother to "everyone but Attila the Hun," including Cher (Mask) and Sylvester Stallone (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot).
More than anything, Getty played Sophia.
NBC deployed her and her character seemingly whenever one of its shows needed a little Golden Girls ratings magic. In all, Getty showed up in Sophia guise on Blossom, Empty Nest and Nurses.
In the fall of 1992, months after The Golden Girls finally expired, Getty, White and McClanahan reteamed for the spinoff, The Golden Palace, which moved the franchise from NBC to CBS and their characters from Blanche's home to a hotel. It lasted only one season.
Getty continued to work until 2000, when her dementia became more pronounced. Her illness forced her to miss more than one reunion with her signature costars, including the 2003 TV special, The Golden Girls: Their Greatest Moments.
Born Estelle Scher on July 25, 1923, Getty set aside early acting ambitions to become a "housewife in Bayshore, Queens," as the New York Times put it in a 1982 article.
Getty, then 58, told the newspaper she thought she was too old for Broadway. But given a chance meeting with Fierstein at a party in the 1970s, the novice turned positively Sophia-esque .
"I said to him, 'If you're such a hotshot playwright, why don't you write a play with a mother in it—so I can play it,'" Getty said. "A year later he sent me this play to read. He had never seen my work, but decided I could do it."
And she could.
(Originally published July 22, 2008 at 10:32 a.m. PT.)