Today would have been actress Estelle Getty's 91st birthday; born in 1923, she left us just a few days over six years ago in 2008. The passing of the beloved actress, so much loved for her portrayal of Bea Arthur's mother Sophia Petrillo in the long-running sitcom The Golden Girls, was a huge blow to her legions of fans, all of whom worshiped Sophia's acerbic, hilarious and often inappropriate remarks to Bea as her mostly well-grounded daughter Dorothy, Rue McClanahan as the randy Blanche and Betty White as the absurdly-grounded Rose. Though this group functioned as a beautiful ensemble and everybody probably had their special favorite Golden Girl, there was nobody who didn't love it when Sophia chimed in.
The Golden Girls ran from 1985 - 1992 for 177 episodes; when Bea Arthur left at the end of the run Sophia, Blanche and Rose kept going another season together on The Golden Palace as the ladies opened a small hotel. Audiences weren't yet ready to say goodbye to Sophia Petrillo, however, and Estelle Getty reprised the character on the sitcom Empty Nest where she appeared on over fifty episodes during its run from 1988 - 1995.
NYC-born Getty got her show biz start in the Catskills where she'd wait tables and try her hand at comedy on the resort stages. She kept at it, juggling real life secretarial gigs and small theater roles until she landed the role of playwright Harvey Fierstein' s mother in the original stage version of Torch Song Trilogy. Guests roles on TV and small roles in features -- including Cher's mother in Mask -- finally led to her big break when the 62-year old got the part of Sophia Petrillo, the 80-something year old mother of the Bea Arthur character. Bea was in fact barely one year older than Getty at the time.
Nobody says it like Sophia Petrillo -- here are some choice Estelle Getty moments in the role of a lifetime:
An early interview with the cast of The Golden Girls on The Merv Griffin Show:
In 1988 Estelle Getty won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series -- she was nominated each year from 1986 thru 1992 and this was her sole win:
She and Betty White were featured in a great Clueless parody on the 1996 MTV Movie Awards:
Estelle Getty passed away on July 22, 2008 -- three days before her 85th birthday -- from complications of Lewy body dementia. Her death was met with genuine sadness; she had created one of the most memorable comedy characters in all of TV history and audiences were devastated.
YouTube is full of fan-made Estelle Getty video tributes, tangible proof of the lasting affection that her fans hold for her and her masterful portrayal of Sophia Petrillo. Here are just a couple of them:
The Flaming Nose remembers with fondness and respect the talented and hilarious Estelle Getty.