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.Thank you for being a friend -- to so many of us.
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.
“I am the mother,” she declared in her opening line in “Torch Song Trilogy,” Harvey Fierstein’s 1981 play about the travails of a gay man in New York City, and as a summary of her career, her character was right.
“I’ve played mothers to heroes and mothers to zeroes,” Ms. Getty wrote in her autobiography, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now ... So What?” (Contemporary Books, 1988). “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.”
The book was a response to Ms. Getty’s sudden and resounding popularity in the most famous of her mother roles, the tart-tongued, white-haired Sophia Petrillo, oldest of the four previously married women sharing a Miami home in “The Golden Girls.” In the show, Sophia was the mother of Dorothy Zbornak, played by Bea Arthur who, in real life, was older than Ms. Getty.
Sophia, characterized by her bluntness and cranky lamentations about old age, treated her daughter with a kind of loving contempt, and their two roommates, the man-obsessed Blanche (Rue McClanahan), and the dim-witted Rose (Betty White), with the eye-rolling impatience of one who will not indulge the self-delusions of others. When Blanche complained that her life was an open book, Sophia witheringly replied: “Your life is an open blouse.”
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.”