The Truth About Betty White and The Golden Girls: How the Beloved TV Best Friends Really Got Along

Betty White, who died Dec. 31, was the last surviving member of the Emmy-winning foursome: Here's how their magical chemistry came together.

By Natalie Finn Dec 31, 2021 8:15 PMTags
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Between 1985 and 1992, there was no more welcoming place to be on a Saturday night than watching Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia talk about life over slices of cheesecake.

No matter how old you were, whether you were still in your single digits or at a point where you were reminiscing about your 50s, The Golden Girls was—and remains, as evidenced by the people of all ages still tuning into reruns—a sitcom that brought families together. It was a show that you made a point of being at home to watch, sitting through commercials and everything, perhaps with one of the special golden-aged ladies in your life by your side.

One of the most delightful things about those repeats, perhaps, is all the new jokes, the ones that meant nothing when you were a kid, but that are either eerily spot-on or shockingly raunchy now. (It's for the best that you had no idea how many sex jokes you were watching with your grandma when you were 8—but it was awesome seeing her laugh that hard.)

And though it's been more than 36 years since The Golden Girls premiered in September 1985, and its four pitch-perfect stars are no longer with us, the dynamic relationships that Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan and Betty White brought to the screen live on.

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"You see Golden Girls on three hours a day!" Arthur marveled to E! News in 2002, 10 years after the show ended its original run. And yes, she still enjoyed watching it.

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In almost every successful show—be it about solving murders, selling paper or angling for the Iron Throne (or stewardship of Waystar RoyCo)—it's the nuances of the relationships, be they supportive and uplifting or toxic and destructive, that keep viewers coming back for more and rewatching to catch what they missed the first time.

And The Golden Girls, for all its sitcom-length cheer, had its sad, tender and fraught moments amid the delicious snark, all of it adding up to a delectable portrait of women digging into their second, or third (or fourth) chapter of life with gusto. 

But when the onscreen chemistry is that good, it can be kind of a letdown to think about the actors off camera, wondering if these ladies ever lunched, if they were the Jen-Courteney-Lisa of their day or the Kim Cattrall and Sarah Jessica Parker.

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For starters, all four stars of The Golden Girls won an Emmy, and that's with Arthur, McClanahan and White all competing in the Best Actress in a Comedy Series category. 

White, playing wide-eyed Minnesotan Rose Nyland, won for her work on the show's first season, in 1986; followed by McClanahan, the lusty Blanche Deveraux, in 1987; and Arthur, the acid-tongued divorcée Dorothy Zbornak, who more often than not killed with just a stare or a roll of her eyes, took it in 1988. Getty, who played Sophia Petrillo, Dorothy's Sicily-picturing, octogenarian mother (despite being a year younger than Arthur), was nominated every year for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy and won in 1988.

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"To get to this point, you can't narrow it down anymore than three," White said in her Emmy acceptance speech. "I mean, there ain't no way. I am the lucky one, who gets to come and pick up this beautiful golden girl," she said, gesturing to her statuette, "but Estelle, and Rue, and Bea and I all thank you.

"We're a matched set, you can't split us up. We want to thank the network for taking a chance on four old broa-... old ladies," she corrected herself with a knowing look.

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Rue (who laughed gracefully when presenter Howie Mandel pronounced her name as "McCallahan") gave a longer speech the following year before she addressed the "wonderful group known as the Golden Girls.

"There's five of us, you know. There's Bea Arthur and there's Betty White. There's Estelle Getty, there's me, and there's our secret weapon, the fifth Golden Girl, Terry Hughes," she said with a smile about the male Hughes, who directed 108 episodes of the show and became an executive producer in 1989. "He makes us happy to come to work every day, every week, every year."

Still, McClanahan wrote two decades later that it was "awkward" to be pitted against one another year after year, and she sensed Arthur wasn't nuts about losing to White that first year, or herself the next, despite Arthur's bigger paycheck as the most seasoned leading lady of the group.

But when Arthur did win, the first thing she said was, "Let me make this very brief: the four of us want to thank, because we all won..." And she went on to list many people involved with the show, including executive producer Paul Junger Witt and creator Susan Harris

After that, the ladies were all bonded in having to grin and bear it when Candice Bergen won the next two years, and again in 1992, for Murphy Brown. (Kirstie Alley won in 1991 for Cheers.)

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When NBC was first casting The Golden Girls, McClanahan and White had recently been on Mama's Family together, so they had an ongoing rapport going in to the new project. "We adore each other," White said of McClanahan, whom she affectionately called "Roozie."

White was originally considered for Blanche, perhaps having been typecast from her two-time Emmy-winning role as the bawdy Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and they wanted McClanahan to play Rose.

But McClanahan, as she remembered in her 2007 memoir My First Five Husbands...and the Ones Who Got Away, thought the role of Blanche was perfect for herself, and she was secretly thrilled when, in the middle of her audition for Rose, the pilot director asked her to switch to Blanche. The next day they had White read opposite her as Rose.

Meanwhile, McClanahan says she was tasked with trying to convince Arthur, whom she starred with on the All in the Family spin-off Maude, to join The Golden Girls. It was hard to miss the spiritual connection between Arthur's iconic acerbic feminist Maude Findlay with independent divorcée Dorothy. And McClanahan must have been thought of for Rose because she played Maude's ditzy neighbor Vivien for six years.

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Sure enough, McClanahan—who hadn't seen Arthur in seven years but said she loved working with her—remembered Arthur telling her, "'Rue, I don't want to do 'Maude and Vivien Meet Sue Ann Nivens.' Boooorrrring!"

However, once she found out that White and McClanahan had swapped roles, she was more interested. Thank goodness.

Talking to E! News, Arthur said she remembered reading a "brilliant" script, thinking "it's funny, it's adult, and I will get off my ass again and go to work."

She did have reservations about doing another sitcom and had turned down a lot in the interim (and had a misstep with Amanda's, an American take on the British classic Fawlty Towers), but once she read the Golden Girls script, that was it. "I didn't know it was going to turn into a cult [classic]," she said. "I just thought it was wonderful."

Getty, mainly a New York stage actress who had played the scene-stealing grandmother on Broadway in Torch Song Trilogy and moved west for its Los Angeles run, completed the foursome. The "chemistry was plain as a preacher's daughter," McClanahan wrote. "Our set was a happy one."

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Yet the story of a feud between Arthur and White—who as Rose was the object of some of Dorothy's most caustic barbs and hilarious glares into the distance—persists. "I love both Bea and Betty and got a huge kick out of each of them," McClanahan wrote in her book. "Their relationship with each other wasn't all I wished it could be, but it never interfered with their work."

Arthur told E! News, "It was a brilliant working relationship, everybody. There wasn't a weak link in the whole thing."

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So it may have been agreed upon that, as co-stars at least, everything was just as it should have been. But while McClanahan and White had the closet friendship in the years after The Golden Girls ended its original run, none of them ever felt the need to really disparage each other. "Bea is a very, very eccentric woman," McClanahan recalled in an interview she gave for the TV Academy's Archive of American Television. "She wouldn't go to lunch unless Betty would go with her."

Even if White was late, Arthur always waited for her, and when the cast stayed for dinner while shooting on Fridays, they always sat next to each other. White also noted in her 1987 autobiography, Betty White in Person, that she and Arthur lunched together every day—and both she and McClanahan noted that Bea was a foodie, to a fault.

McClanahan praised both Getty and Arthur's cooking skills, admitting that the latter considered all of McClanahan's recipes "odd." White called Arthur, when it came to food, "discriminating, knowledgeable, and appreciative...and a bit intolerant of someone else's lack in this department...[My] unimaginative predictability drives her bananas."

"Picky," was how Getty characterized Arthur's approach to food, prompting an annoyed look from her TV daughter. "But it's her total preoccupation," White added when the cast sat down with the Washington Post in 1986. "It's better than sex as far as Bea is concerned. Eating."

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McClanahan also marveled at how the four of them, from such different backgrounds, all meshed so seamlessly in their roles—and White concurred. "There could not be four more disparate females!" she remarked in her 1987 book.

White's third husband, Allen Ludden (who she considered her greatest love), died in 1985, and she—the only native Californian of the bunch—had a circle of friends dating back to her earliest days in showbiz and as a student at Beverly Hills High School.

Arthur and McClanahan were divorced, the latter five times (she remarried for good in 1997). Getty married her husband, Arthur Gettleman, in 1947, and they were together until his death in 2004. (Though that didn't stop her from joking that she'd drink Cary Grant's bathwater should he ever visit the Golden Girls set.)

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Having already worked on one groundbreaking sitcom that centered on a strong central female character surrounded by essential supporting roles, White knew what it was like to work with a lot of big personalities, including her own—and the Hollywood veteran knew how women, no matter the reality of the situation, were often assumed to be adversaries instead of allies.

"Sad to say, there are times when rumors are based on fact," she wrote about feud narratives in general. "Knowing how much time and togetherness is involved in making a television series is mind-boggling to think of doing it if you disliked each other! Bad enough in a dramatic situation...imagine doing comedy in those conditions?!"

"I don't even want to contemplate what the set of The Golden Girls would be like if we didn't all support and respect one another. The fact that we also happen to be nuts about each other was an added starter which could not have been foreseen when the show was first put together." 

Moreover, White wrote, "From the very beginning, we were each thrilled by the professionalism of the other three. No one had to be carried. Whatever one of us served up was returned in kind...or better."

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During rehearsal breaks, the four of them would normally just stay on set and chat—and one of them would inevitably exclaim, "We sound just like the Golden Girls!"

Both McClanahan and White recalled that Arthur, used to the discipline of the theater, didn't love it when White—who in addition to sitcoms was a veteran of game shows—would "break the fourth wall" and chat with the studio audience in between takes. McClanahan saw both sides of the argument, but eventually started joining White on occasion.

In 1987, Getty, McClanahan and Arthur were all in on it when the show This Is Your Life—which by then was only airing in the form of occasional prime-time specials—surprised White during a photo shoot that was set up entirely as a ruse. "In all truth, you can't imagine what a test of friendship it was for them to go through all that phony preparation...which they hate at the best of times," White wrote of the experience, which included a reunion with many of her Mary Tyler Moore Show co-stars. "I am eternally grateful!"

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Off the set, however, the four ladies mainly ran in different circles.

McClanahan remembered attending big birthday parties Getty threw every summer, and she had a dinner party for about 40 that Arthur attended, while Getty came one time for a Christmas soiree; otherwise, their socializing as a quartet was mainly confined to award shows and work-related gatherings. But they were comfortably chummy. McClanahan grew tomatoes and kept her co-stars supplied. They were all involved with animal rights and rescue charities, and McClanahan and Getty did PETA events together. White let McClanahan know when Mary Tyler Moore's brother's dogs had puppies, and McClanahan adopted what at the time was her third dog.

When they were together, though—as Arthur frequently noted—they really did sound like Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia, minus a few key differences. "Where are those two older women?" Getty wondered aloud while waiting for Arthur and White to show up for lunch with the Post's Tom Shales at a Chinese restaurant in Hollywood. McClanahan was already there, so they chatted about the Golden Globe Getty had just won.

"It's in a niche, with my other icons," Getty said.

Asked if they saw each other much outside of work, Dorothy's TV mom replied, "We all have such different lives, really. I really would love to hang out with them. But they don't let me."

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Arthur later recalled to E! that her favorite part of the show was the dynamic between Sophia and Dorothy. "One of my favorite episodes was where Sophia enrolled us in a mother and daughter beauty pageant at Shady Pines [the nursing home that caught fire, which is why she was living with her grown daughter and her friends], and for the talent portion we did Sonny and Cher singing 'I Got You Babe.' I loved everything that had to do with a mother."

They teased Getty mercilessly about that Golden Globe ("We never used to have to call you [to the set] until you got your Golden Globe!" White cracked), until, of course, they all had hardware in their niches.

It was only fitting that Arthur and Getty won their Emmys on the same night. "Picture it. California. 1988," Getty began, getting a big laugh. "This is such a big thrill and I know I can't take too much time, but I want to thank the immediate world." She thanked her family, friends, the GG crew, "and the reason I'm standing up here, the three most beautiful, generous, wonderful, talented ladies—my daughter, Bea Arthur, and her two roommates, Rue McClanahan and Betty White."

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"At my age, it was a shock to my heart," Getty told the Post about getting her first major TV role at the age of 61. "Not only was it terrifying to get this kind of job, it was terrifying to walk into a room with Betty White and Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan."

"And don't you forget it," White joked. (Despite her theater background, Getty actually had trouble recalling her lines, she'd get so terrified, so she used cue cards.)

Asked how they got along, really, McClanahan said, "Well, I've gotten along with women all my life." "I have, too," Arthur added. "My best friends are women," Getty concurred. 

To which White added, "Oh, mine aren't. I like to be with men better. But I get along with women."

Arthur noted that White liked men and dogs, and White acknowledged that she'd like it if the Golden Girls had a pet. As she went on about the idea of Rose having a pet rabbit, Arthur gave a signature Dorothy eye roll.

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When their six-year deal came to a close, White, Getty and McClanahan were all pleasantly surprised when Arthur (who had walked away from Maude after six seasons) signed on for another year.

But after that, she knew it was time to go. "I thought, we hit it, we've really done it, and why hang on and do, just to keep it running, and to go over the same stuff again?" Arthur told E!. "We're never going to—not be as successful, but it's never going to be as rewarding creatively, certainly as during the first five years."

After the show ended with Dorothy marrying Blanche's rich uncle, played by Leslie Nielsen, the remaining trio signed up for the spin-off The Golden Palace, in which Rose, Blanche and Sophia ran a Miami hotel. Don Cheadle played the hotel manager and Cheech Marin played the head chef, but the show—on CBS, not NBC—was one-and-done.

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Arthur always did stand out from the pack—not just on Golden Girls, but among iconic actors in general—due to her singular mannerisms, her recognizable voice, her storied theater career and the type of woman she played: No-nonsense, whip-smart, so funny and tough but recognizably human.

"Naked pictures of Bea Arthur" is one of the items the hapless hostage-takers demand in the 1993 comedy Airheads, thinking the screwier their requests, the likelier they'd be able to get off with an insanity plea. (Supposedly, they do get the photos. "Bea Arthur—outstanding," Judd Nelson observes.) Her final TV appearance was a cameo on Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2005, playing Larry David's late mother. He sees her in a dream where he's gone to heaven, and she chews him out for even thinking for a second that he was adopted.

White enjoyed another golden chapter after stealing scenes in 2009's The Proposal ("I've heard Ryan can't get over his thing for me," she quipped to People in one of her final interviews about co-star Ryan Reynolds), which led to a 2010 Emmy win for hosting Saturday Night Live and a six-season run on TV Land's Hot in Cleveland. She ended up celebrity royalty to fans of all ages, a national treasure to be cherished while she still walked among us, and she was honored at the 2018 Emmys accordingly.

"It's incredible that you can stay in a career this long and still have people put up with you," cracked White, then 96.

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White recalled that Arthur was the most Professional-with-a-capital-P among them, the least likely to crack up mid-scene—though it did happen a few memorable times.

"What makes it so marvelous in her case is that Bea is not a laugher," White wrote in Betty White in Person. "She may enjoy a joke with a smile, maybe a small chuckle...she is more likely to react to a funny remark with a deadpan stare. It's just such fun to see her fall apart!"

Arthur—whom White referred to in the book on one occasion as "my tall friend" and again as "my good friend"—apparently had a deathly fear of birds, or at least live chickens, which they all discovered one day on set.

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"If we haven't gotten in trouble with each other by now, I think it highly unlikely we ever will," White concluded after shooting 51 episodes over two seasons.

In her next memoir, 1995's Here We Go Again: My Life in Television, White wrote about what was an admittedly odd atmosphere on set the day after she won the Emmy in 1986 and The Golden Girls was named Best Comedy Series. 

"Estelle gave me a big hug and kiss—but she did it outside, before we got into the studio," she recalled. "The crew couldn't have been warmer or sweeter, but the congratulations were all whispered." Maybe, despite the accolades, no one wanted to count their chickens (especially Bea Arthur, literally).

But, as the years went by and the show racked up Emmys, "the first year's coolness was never allowed again. We celebrated!"

White and Arthur were also bonded in grief just when the show was so obviously taking off during its first season, both losing their mothers within weeks of each other. They had been in failing health, and White's mom died in November of 1985. When Arthur got the call that her mother had passed away during rehearsal three weeks later, "she went home but then came back to work the next day, just as I had done," White wrote. "We were a family, too, and somehow it just seemed the only place to be."

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"Things got pretty spicy once in awhile," McClanahan wrote in her book, "but what mattered most to each of us individually and all of us as a group: the chemistry worked. We were damn funny. And we did it together. That's what counts at the end of the day."

White was five months older than Arthur and the oldest of the four Golden Girls stars, but she outlived them all by more than a decade before her death on Dec. 31, just 17 days shy of her 100th birthday.

Estelle Getty died at 84 on July 22, 2008, having battled Lewy body dementia for almost 10 years. "Our mother-daughter relationship was one of the greatest comic duos ever, and I will miss her," Arthur said in a statement at the time. 

"The only comfort at this moment is that although Estelle has moved on, Sophia will always be with us," White said. Arthur died April 25, 2009, at 86 and McClanahan, the youngest Golden Girl, died at 76 on June 3, 2010.

In an update for a new paperback edition of her book in 2010, White wrote that losing all three of her co-stars, including, "just recently, my beloved Rue McClanahan, has been very hard to take. When you work so closely together, for so long, and are blessed with such success, you wind up locked at the heart."

Seasons 1-7 of The Golden Girls are streaming on Hulu.

(E! and NBC are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)

(Originally published July 30, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)