Estelle Getty, ‘Golden Girls’ Matriarch, Dies at 84
July 23, 2008
By BRUCE WEBER
Estelle Getty, whose portrayal of a crabbily charming octogenarian on the television sitcom “The Golden Girls” gave new prominence to elderly characters in prime time and endeared her to viewers of all ages, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. She was 84.
Her son Carl Gettleman confirmed her death. Ms. Getty had been suffering from Lewy body dementia, a progressive brain disease.
Long before “Golden Girls” Ms. Getty had been portraying maternal types of all sorts on the stage.
The show ran from 1985 to 1992 and, in reruns, is still seen regularly on the Lifetime channel. Ms. Getty was nominated seven years in a row for an Emmy award for best supporting actress in a comedy series, winning in 1988. It was a remarkable coup for an actress then in her 60s who had worked for decades with almost no recognition at all.
Mr. Gettleman said in an interview Tuesday that his mother’s remark was, “After 50 years in the business, I’m an overnight success.”
Estelle Scher (she had no middle name) was born in Manhattan on July 25, 1923, the daughter of immigrants from Poland. Her father started a glass business that was eventually taken over by Arthur Gettleman, the man she would marry in 1947. Her stage name was derived from his.
A tiny woman, under 5 feet tall and less than 100 pounds, Ms. Getty wrote in her autobiography that her interest in acting began as a child when she saw her first vaudeville show; as a young woman she tried her hand at stand-up comedy. For most of her performing life, which she spent in community theaters, small theaters way off Broadway and regional houses, she made a living as a secretary.
In 1978, after seeing “The International Stud,” the first installment of what would become “Torch Song Trilogy,” she went backstage to introduce herself to the playwright and star, Mr. Fierstein, and they became friends. Some time later, she recalled in an 1984 interview, she said to him, “You’re such a hotshot playwright, why don’t you write a play with a mother in it, and I’ll play her.” That play turned out to be “Widows and Children First,” the concluding segment in the trilogy, and it changed her life. Rex Reed wrote in The New York Daily News that “Estelle Getty is the most endearing Jewish mother to be seen on the New York stage since Molly Picon, only prettier and more believable.”
The performance led to her being cast as Cher’s mother in the film “Mask,” and it was while she was on the road with “Torch Song” in Los Angeles that she auditioned for “Golden Girls,” getting the job after she showed up for the final audition in the costume and makeup of a little old lady.
Her husband died in 2004. In addition to Carl Gettleman, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., Ms. Getty is survived by another son, Barry Gettleman of Miami; a brother, David Scher of London; and a sister, Rosilyn Howard of Las Vegas.
“At Snap-Out Forms, the first day I came to work, I had an audition, and I said, ‘Can I go for my lunch at 10 o’clock?’ ” she said. “The next day I had to go someplace else. I said. ‘Can I take my lunch at 2:30?’ The next day I asked if I could take lunch at 11 o’clock. The office manager said, ‘You have the strangest eating habits of any secretary we’ve ever had.’ ”