Rue McClanahan dies at 76; star of the hit TV series ‘The Golden Girls’

Rue McClanahan, an actress best known for her Emmy-winning role as the sassy, man-crazy Southern belle Blanche Devereaux on the hit TV series “The Golden Girls,” has died. She was 76.

McClanahan died early Thursday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital of a brain hemorrhage, according to her manager, Barbara Lawrence.

Rue McClanahan: The headline with the news obituary of actress Rue McClanahan in Friday’s LATExtra section gave her year of birth as 1933. As the article noted, she was born in 1934. —

Last year McClanahan had heart-bypass surgery and in 1997 was treated for breast cancer.

Betty White, the lone surviving star of “The Golden Girls,” said in a statement: “Rue was a close and dear friend. I treasured our relationship. It hurts more than I even thought it would, if that’s possible.”

In the early 1970s, McClanahan segued from the New York stage to Hollywood after TV producer Norman Lear spotted her in a dramatic role in “Tonight in Living Color,” which had a brief run off-Broadway in 1969. He cast her as Vivian, Bea Arthur’s ditzy best friend, in “Maude,” which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1978.


When “The Golden Girls” debuted on NBC in 1985, Times critic Howard Rosenberg praised the sitcom about four single retirees living together in Miami as a TV rarity, a comedy that offered a meaningful portrayal of post-middle-age women that was also “very funny.” His only complaint was that McClanahan, then 51, looked too young for someone in her “golden” years.

She was set to play the naïve Rose when Jay Sandrich, who directed the pilot, suggested she swap parts with White, originally cast as the libidinous Blanche. Arthur, as the outspoken Dorothy, and Estelle Getty, as Dorothy’s blunt mother, rounded out the cast.

An Oklahoma native, McClanahan said she was drawn to Blanche because she “thought a Southern belle would be fun to work on,” she said in a 1986 interview.

The bawdy show became a massive hit, and in 1986 People magazine pronounced its four stars “the Charlie’s Angels of a graying America.”


The sitcom stayed on the air until 1992 and was briefly followed by “The Golden Palace,” a spinoff that starred all of the “Girls” except Arthur.

On “The Golden Girls,” Blanche’s dialogue often revolved around her unseen sexual adventures. One typical line, lustily delivered by McClanahan: “Let’s rent an adult video, drink mimosas and French kiss the pillows.”

Blanche’s sometimes-racy wardrobe also spilled over into McClanahan’s life. She was allowed to keep about 500 of her “Golden Girls” outfits and built a closet for them in her New York apartment.

Playing the part of the self-absorbed Blanche for seven years helped McClanahan develop a stronger self-image off-screen, the actress often said.


“She was such an upbeat woman,” McClanahan said in Newsday in 1995 of her character. “It occurred to me early on that since Blanche thought she was so irresistible and so attractive, and I looked exactly like her, why didn’t I take it to heart? It’s stood me in good stead.”

She was born Feb. 21, 1934, in Healdton, Okla., and named Eddi-Rue McClanahan, a combination of the names of her parents. Her father, William Edwin McClanahan, was a builder and her mother, Dreda Rheua-Nell, a beautician.

At the University of Tulsa, she studied German and drama, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1956. She also got married for the first time, and had her only child, a son.

On scholarship at the Pasadena Playhouse, she studied theater and moved to New York in 1964 with “no apartment, no connections,” McClanahan told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1999. “I waited a lot of tables.”


But she started to get acting roles onstage and won an Obie in 1970 for her role in the off-Broadway play “Who’s Happy Now?”

On Broadway, she also appeared in several plays before moving to Los Angeles, which placed her firmly “in the television end” of acting, she later said.

When “Maude” ended, McClanahan starred in the short-lived 1978 ABC series “Apple Pie,” made guest appearances on TV shows and acted in TV movies. She also played prissy Aunt Fran on NBC’s “Mama’s Family” from 1983 to 1985.

“Lo and behold, if they didn’t kill me off as Aunt Fran,” McClanahan told the Plain Dealer in 1999. “But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. The next season, ‘Golden Girls’ was up for grabs.”


While working on “The Golden Girls” and living in Studio City, she finished writing a musical farce, “Oedipus, Shmedipus, As Long as You Love Your Mother,” that was presented in 1991 at the Golden Theatre in Burbank to good reviews.

Married six times, she cheekily called her 2007 memoir, “My First Five Husbands … And the Ones Who Got Away.”

When asked why she had married six times, McClanahan said in 2007 on Fox News, “I thought each one was going to be the last one.”

In 1997, she married Morrow Wilson. The couple separated last year.


Besides Wilson, she is survived by her son, Mark Bish of Austin, Texas; and her sister, Melinda L. McClanahan, of Silver City, N.M.

Memorial services will be held in the summer in New York and Los Angeles.

Her family has established the Official Rue McClanahan Memorial Page on Facebook.