Estelle Getty in The Golden Girls

Estelle Getty

(Pictured above in the center, Estelle Getty)

“I’ve played mothers to heroes and mothers to zeroes,” the Emmy® Award-winning actress Estelle Getty observed 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, mothers in plays by Neil Simon and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. I’ve played mother to everyone but Attila the Hun.”

She also played, perhaps most famously, the wisecrack-slinging mother Sophia Petrillo in Touchstone Television’s The Golden Girls. With her tiny frame, huge eyeglasses, and ever-present purse, Estelle cut a comic swath few have forgotten, and in so doing revealed a heartbreaking truth. Older women, as Estelle once observed, need an oversized purse, because they have been relieved of so many possessions in their lives that everything they have managed to hold on to seems to wind up in one. It was precisely this deeply realized mix of comic absurdity and sad truth that made Estelle’s portrayal of Sophia so unforgettable. In 1988, she received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her performance in this seminal comedy series.

“I know this lady I’m playing,” Estelle observed during the show’s spectacular run. “She’s partly me and partly my imagination, but she’s an original and that’s what I’ve been playing all my life—original characters.”

Original is an adjective that fit Estelle nicely. Born July 25, 1923, in New York City, she was trained for the New York stage by the legendary Herbert Berghof Studios and famed acting coach Gerald Russak. After a long stage career, she gained national prominence with her headline-stealing role in Broadway’s Tony Award®-winning Torch Song Trilogy. Her portrayal of the inimitable Mrs. Beckoff won her the first-ever Helen Hayes Award for Best Supporting Performer.

Hollywood discovered Estelle Getty when the show arrived in Los Angeles. Her management team told her she should try to make it in Hollywood. Her answer? “I’ll give it two months.” In that time, Estelle starred in Torch Song Trilogy,” shot the NBC pilot No Man’s Land, went to work on the highly regarded film Mask (again, playing a mother, this time to Cher) and performed in Copacabana (playing mother to Barry Manilow). Although she was slightly younger than Bea Arthur, Estelle donned a wig, makeup and delightfully dowdy clothes to try out for the role of Dorothy’s mother on The Golden Girls. Six weeks later, she won the part.

Estelle shared with her character Sophia a forthrightness that, after The Golden Girls, made her a spokesperson for many AIDS related charities. She became a preeminent voice in this country for the senior population.

Estelle passed away on July 22, 2008, in her Hollywood home. “Our mother-daughter relationship was one of the greatest comic duos ever, and I will miss her,” Bea Arthur said at the time of her passing.