Getty was 'Golden' on TV

July 23, 2008|By Claudia Luther | Claudia Luther,Special to Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES - Estelle Getty, whose acting career bloomed late in life with her Emmy-winning performance as Sophia Petrillo, the wise-cracking mother of Bea Arthur on the popular NBC sitcom The Golden Girls, died yesterday. She was 84.

Ms. 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 OChapdelaine. Ms. Getty had been battling Lewy body dementia for the past 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 Ms. Getty's Golden Girls co-stars, said in a statement.

Ms. Getty was a veteran stage actress in New York 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 Ms. Arthur, Ms. 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," Ms. Arthur said in a statement to the Associated Press.

Freed from normal social constraints by a mild stroke, Sophia got many of the show's funniest lines, made even more droll by Ms. Getty's deadpan delivery.

The intergenerational free-for-all often left Dorothy in stunned silence, from which she recovered herself by cooing ominously the name of the retirement home from which her mother had been rescued: "Shady Pines."

Ms. 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, Ms. Getty told the Los Angeles 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 Ms. Getty. She said she also thought that the difference in stature between herself and Ms. Arthur set up a comic situation, since Sophia seemed always to be the one telling Dorothy to shut up.

Ms. 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 zeroes," 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."

Ms. 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 Ms. Getty the most important roles of her career, including Golden Girls and Torch Song Trilogy, in which for five years she played mother to Mr. Fierstein's drag queen in the Broadway production and on national tours.

Mr. Fierstein had met Ms. Getty in the late 1970s when playing in small theaters in New York and, Mr. 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."

Ms. 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 of Florida and Carl Gettleman of Santa Monica, Calif.; her brother, David Scherur of England; and her sister, Rosalind Howard.

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