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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,495

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This is the grave of Estelle Getty.

Born in 1923 in New York, Estelle Scher grew up in the Jewish middle class of that time. Her parents had immigrated from Poland and the family ran a windshield glass business for cars. The family was pretty into the popular entertainments, including vaudeville. They went to see a live performance every week. She decided she wanted to be an actress. The family was skeptical, as they often are. She did some work on the side on the stage, but mostly worked as a secretary during the day.

For decades, Getty, as her stage name became after she married Arthur Gettleman in 1947, was on the margins of the New York acting world. Basically, she had three jobs. First, she took care of her two children. Second, she worked her secretary jobs. Third, she acted. Can’t imagine a lot of sleeping in there. She got roles, but they were small, by and large. In fact, she was really just living a pretty normal working class life. Gettleman lived in a liberal cooperative in Queens and he worked in her family’s glass business. In fact, when she did make it big and had to go to LA, he just stayed in New York and worked. I don’t think he particularly was thrilled that his wife was going to California and he sure didn’t want to go. He probably also worried about the stability of the finances of this. But it was her dream and she did it, regardless of what he thought.

Getty did not have a breakthrough until 1982, when she was 59 years old. That came thanks to Harvey Fierstein, who wrote a character in Torch Song Trilogy, his hugely successful Broadway play, specifically to give to Getty. This got her a ton of attention. She was funny and she was a good actor. She did this role for the next three years. She had a couple of other small roles at this time. She played “Middle Aged Woman” in Tootsie. And that tells you where Getty was in the acting universe.

And then, Getty got the role of a lifetime–Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls. She was the least known of the four actors who led that show, but they all were stars equally as this tremendously popular show quickly showed. Now, the character was a woman in her late 80s, the mother of an also retired woman. But Getty had no problem going heavy with makeup and wigs to make her look ancient and then provide zinger after zinger on the show. There was one weird thing about this casting, which is that she was Bea Arthur’s mother. Now, it’s not weird because Arthur was actually older than Getty. That’s fine, just deal with that through makeup. It’s that Arthur was a foot taller than Getty and I am trying to imagine how a mother has a daughter a full foot taller than she is. I’m not saying this isn’t possible, but I am saying it is very unusual. Did the show ever deal with this? Not as I recall. Now, your response to this point should be “who the fuck cares” and I agree with you. But still, it’s my time to think about Estelle Getty and that’s what popped into my head.

In any case, Getty, Arthur, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan had superb chemistry and The Golden Girls was a hugely successful show. In a sense, it’s a success feels unexpected to me. A show about four old women in Florida? Kind of opposite of the dominant youth culture of the 80s. But it was hardly just the older folks who loved that show. It was a staple every week in my house as a kid, for sure.

The Golden Girls lasted for seven seasons, six of which it occupied a top 10 spot in the Nielsen Ratings. Basically, Arthur got sick of doing the show and that was it. The other three held on for a spin-off called The Golden Palace, but who would want to watch that? Like After MASH and other such attempts to keep shows alive after major stars leave, it was a flop and was cancelled after one season. Interestingly, the male co-stars of that show were Cheech Marin and Don Cheadle. Interesting cast! But Getty landed on her feet right away, getting a major role on Empty Nest, a largely forgotten show today but one that was pretty popular and lasted from 1988-1995. This was actually also a sort of spin-off of Golden Girls in the way that the networks used to create vague connections between two shows so that the older one could give the newer one a boost in the ratings. Getty was in a couple early episodes as Sophia and then in 1993, returned full time to Empty Nest to play the character again for another 52 episodes. Ah, the days where you had to write 26 episodes a year. No wonder you want a wise-cracking old lady back, just to fill some lines. In any case, playing Sophia was Estelle Getty’s career, basically. One big exception here–Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, the buddy cop comedy with Sylvester Stallone. The movie is basically terrible and Stallone himself has said it is the one film he wish he had not done. But hey, Getty got to cash in at least. Plus Ving Rhames shows up in a minor role.

After Empty Nest ended in 1995, Getty was around a bit. She appeared in random shows from time to time, including an episode of Duckman, the hilarious and often offensive cartoon about a private investigator duck that is the best work Jason Alexander has ever done. But she was older and her health led her to retire in 2001.

Also worth noting that Getty was by most accounts a really good person. She was a serious activist for AIDS issues, perhaps in part because she took care of a nephew dying of AIDS in the early 90s. Who knows how his parents or larger family responded to that, but Aunt Estelle gave him everything she could. She went on to open a hospice center for AIDS patients in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is where her nephew had lived. It it still open.

Getty died in 2008, at the age of 84. Unfortunately it was from Lewy body dementia, which is just about the worst way to go.

Estelle Getty is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California.

If you would like this series to visit other people on The Golden Girls, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Unfortunately, all three of her costars were cremated, or we just don’t know where they are buried. Herb Edelman, who was in 26 episodes as Bea Arthur’s ex-husband, is in Queens, New York. Sid Melton, who was in 13 episodes, is in Hollywood, but a different cemetery. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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