Estelle Getty, 84; ‘Golden Girls’ actress brought humor, depth to mother roles

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Special to The Times

Estelle Getty, whose acting career bloomed late in life with her Emmy-winning performance as Sophia Petrillo, the wisecracking mother of Bea Arthur’s character on the popular NBC sitcom “The Golden Girls,” died Tuesday. She was 84.

Getty, who also won notice for her performance on Broadway as Harvey Fierstein’s mother in “Torch Song Trilogy,” died at her home in Hollywood, said her friend and caretaker, Paul Chapdelaine. Getty had been battling Lewy body dementia for the last eight or nine years, he said.

“The only comfort at this moment is that although Estelle has moved on, Sophia will always be with us,” Betty White, one of Getty’s “Golden Girls” costars, said in a statement.


Getty was a veteran stage actress in New York City when she came to Los Angeles for the West Coast run of “Torch Song” in 1985, and her managers urged her to try making it in Hollywood. She told them she’d give it two months.

Six weeks later, she got the part of Sophia, an elderly mother who was forced to live with her divorced, middle-aged daughter and her daughter’s two friends in a house in Miami.

Though about the same age as Arthur, Getty put on a wig, makeup and dowdy clothes and for seven years engaged in hilarious verbal combat with her TV daughter, Dorothy Zbornak, who towered over the tiny but feisty Sophia.

“Our mother-daughter relationship was one of the greatest comic duos ever, and I will miss her,” Arthur said in a statement.

Freed from normal social constraints by a mild stroke, Sophia got many of the show’s funniest lines, made even more droll by Getty’s deadpan delivery. The intergenerational free-for-all often left Dorothy in stunned silence, from which she recovered by cooing ominously the name of the retirement home from which her mother had been rescued: “Shady Pines.”

Dorothy [to Sophia]: Four women live in this house, the toilet seat never has to move, and you always manage to make it bang.


Sophia: Forgive me, sweetheart, why don’t you just get me a litter box to put beside my nightstand!

Getty, a natural comedian famous for her one-liners even in private life, played Sophia for laughs, but she also brought depth to the character. It was her idea that Sophia would always carry a purse because, she said, older women are forced to shed so many possessions in their later years that everything they own ends up in their purses.

“Nobody puts down their life very easily,” she explained in a 1992 interview with Newsday.

In 1988, the year she won an Emmy for her performance as Sophia, Getty told The Times that she did not know what made her character so popular, but she thought it had something to do with her being so small.

“There’s something about people identifying with little people, for various reasons,” said the under-5-foot Getty, who sometimes referred to herself as “a miniature person.” She said she also thought the difference in stature between her and Arthur set up a comic situation, since Sophia seemed always to be the one telling Dorothy to shut up.

Getty was born Estelle Scher on July 25, 1923, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, the daughter of Polish immigrants.


She fell in love with the stage as a small child when her father took her to see a movie and five acts of vaudeville.

“I was stunned,” she wrote in “If I Knew Then What I Know Now So What?,” her 1988 memoir written with Steve Delsohn. “I had found my world.”

By age 5, she was studying singing, dancing and dramatics at a settlement house. She graduated from Seward Park High School and began getting acting experience in the Borscht Belt in the Catskills in upstate New York.

After her marriage in 1946, she worked as a secretary and continued acting, eventually moving into motherly roles.

“I’ve played mothers to heroes and mothers to zeros,” she wrote. “I’ve played Irish mothers, Jewish mothers, Italian mothers, Southern mothers, New England mothers, mothers in plays by Neil Simon and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. I’ve played mother to everyone but Attila the Hun.”

Getty also played Sylvester Stallone’s mother in the 1992 film flop “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot,” Cher’s mother in the 1985 movie “Mask” and Barry Manilow’s mother in the 1985 TV movie “Copacabana.”


Being typecast, however, also gave Getty the most important roles of her career, including “Golden Girls” and “Torch Song Trilogy,” in which for five years she played mother to Fierstein’s drag queen in the Broadway production and on national tours. (Anne Bancroft played Fierstein’s mother in the 1988 film version.)

Fierstein had met Getty in the late 1970s when playing in small theaters in New York and, Fierstein said, she “drove me crazy asking for a part.” He told TV Guide in 1986 that when he got around to casting “Torch Song Trilogy,” “It began to strike me as funny to imagine this teeny little thing bossing me around.”

Reviewing “Torch Song Trilogy” when it opened in November 1983 at the Huntington Hartford Theatre in Hollywood, former Times theater critic Dan Sullivan called Getty’s performance “tough, funny and wonderfully positive.”

Getty had lived in the Los Angeles area since her “Golden Girls” days. Her husband of 57 years, businessman Arthur Gettleman, died in 2004. She is survived by her sons, Barry Gettleman and Carl Gettleman; her brother, David Scher; and her sister, Roslyn Howard.