The petite, wisecracking embodiment of the "44-year overnight sensation," stage veteran Estelle Getty became a television star at an age when most performers were contemplating retirement. Playing the sharp-tongued, hilariously blunt octogenarian Sophia Petrillo on "The Golden Girls" (NBC, 1985-1992), Getty easily stole scenes from co-stars Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White in this groundbreaking hit sitcom, which cheerfully upended viewers' perceptions of senior citizens. For Getty, a television newcomer then little-known outside theatrical circles, becoming a series regular on "The Golden Girls" established her as Hollywood's go-to comic actress for overbearing mother roles. As she wrote in her 1988 autobiography, If I Knew Then What I Know Now So What?, "I've played Irish mothers, Jewish mothers, Italian mothers, Southern mothers -- I've played mother to everyone but Attila the Hun."
Born Estelle Scher in New York City, NY on July 25, 1923, the future Emmy Award winner was bitten by the proverbial acting bug at the age of four. Her father Charles, a Central European immigrant working in the glass business, took Estelle and her mother Sarah to a vaudeville show at the New York Academy of Music. The comedians' slapstick antics and Borscht Belt humor captivated the little girl, whose showbiz aspirations bewildered her parents - especially her mother, whom Getty later recalled as telling her that I "didn't have much going for me and that I should settle for less than I wanted."
Undeterred by her mother's harsh assessment of her talent, Getty began honing her craft, first in Manhattan's amateur Yiddish theater groups, and then in the Catskills resorts, during her short-lived stint as a stand-up comic in the 1940s. Plying the self-deprecating, no-holds-barred brand of stand-up comedy popularized by Totie Fields and Joan Rivers in the 1960s, the teenaged Getty attempted to regale Catskills audiences with short jokes, but their chilly reaction prompted her to abandon stand-up comedy for good.
After marrying Arthur Gettleman in 1947, Getty began the daunting task of juggling marriage, motherhood (the couple had two sons, Barry and Carl), secretarial work, and acting. Although leading roles eluded Getty - due in part to her diminutive stature - she nonetheless found steady work as a character actress in regional theater and off-off Broadway productions of plays ranging from "Death of a Salesman" to "Arsenic and Old Lace." But it was in Harvey Fierstein's seriocomic, autobiographical play, "Torch Song Trilogy," that Getty found her breakthrough role as the kvetching, outspoken Jewish mother sparring with her gay, drag queen son. In his 1981 New York Times review of "Torch Song Trilogy," Mel Gussow singled out Getty for praise, calling her "perfect as a mastodon of a mother."
The juicy supporting role of Mrs. Beckoff in the Tony Award-winning "Torch Song Trilogy" brought Getty to Hollywood's attention when she reprised the role in the Los Angeles production, circa 1983. She played Cher's mother in "Mask" (1985), and did guest roles on "Hotel" (ABC, 1983-88) and "Cagney and Lacey" (CBS, 1982-88) before she received the script for a sitcom pilot written by Susan Harris, the creator of the ABC hit "Soap" (1977-1981), about four spry geriatrics trading randy quips and bitchy one-liners in Miami Beach, FL.
Although thrilled by the prospect of working with sitcom veterans Arthur, McClanahan, and White, Getty was nonetheless taken aback when her agent told her she was reading for the role of Arthur's mother (!), an 80-year-old Sicilian widow. Never the mind the fact that Arthur was actually two months older - or that the character of Sophia Petrillo was described as "rotund." Casting vanity to the wayside, Getty put on clunky, orthopedic sh s, whitened her hair, and donned a size-12 polyester dress to audition for then-NBC entertainment division president Brandon Tartikoff. Her "little old lady" shtick cinched the deal. Getty's days of relative anonymity would soon come to an end.
Premiering on Sept. 14, 1985, "The Golden Girls" was an immediate hit, both with viewers and critics. A few conservative watchdog groups objected to the sexual innuendo-laced dialogue, but most viewers embraced the series and its stars, especially Getty, whose crackerjack timing and stage-honed delivery elevated even the most obvious of one-liners. Transforming herself into the dowdy image of Sophia with a white wig, frumpy costumes and thick glasses, Getty received seven Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series during the sitcom's seven-year run, winning the prize in 1988. She also parlayed her celebrity into becoming an advocate for the elderly; most notably as the national spokesperson for the non-profit organization, Alternative Living for the Aging.
The departure of Bea Arthur from "The Golden Girls" at the end of the sixth season signaled the beginning of the end for the series, if not for the three remaining characters. Getty, McClanahan, and White reprised their roles in the poorly received CBS spin-off, "The Golden Palace," (1992-1993). Getty, however, was not quite ready to say goodbye to her star-making role; she donned her Sophia wig and costume again to become a series regular on another "Golden Girls" spin-off, "Empty Nest" (NBC, 1988-1995) for its final two seasons.
While some actresses may have balked at being typecast as "the overbearing mother," particularly in such lame material as Sylvester Stallone's high-concept dud, "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!"(1992), Getty seemingly relished playing these roles, until ill health forced her to retire from acting. Stricken with Parkinson's disease, osteoporosis, and Lewy Body Dementia - not Alzheimer's, as first reported - Getty disappeared tragically from the public scene since 2000. Fans could nevertheless catch Getty at her sharp-tongued, quick-witted best in "The Golden Girls" reruns, a programming mainstay on Lifetime Television. Meanwhile, Getty was the only member of the cast to miss "The Golden Girls: Their Greatest Moments" (Lifetime, 2003), a retrospective that included clips from the series and fresh interviews with the show's three other stars. Then on July 22, 2008, Getty died at her Hollywood Boulevard home in Los Angeles, presumably from complications due to her advanced dementia. She was 84.