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Estelle Getty, 84; 'Golden Girl' Actress Won an Emmy Award

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Estelle Getty, 84, an actress best remembered for her Emmy Award-winning role on "The Golden Girls" as an abrasive octogenarian robbed of her social tact after a stroke, died July 22 at her home in Los Angeles. She had dementia.

"The Golden Girls," a sitcom about four older women who share a Florida home, aired on NBC from 1985 to 1992. It twice won Emmy Awards for best comedy and has endured in syndication.

Ms. Getty was 61 when she began portraying Sophia and transformed to a much older woman through a white wig, large glasses and dowdy clothing. She was an important member of the show's acting quartet, which also featured Bea Arthur as her dominating daughter.

The other cast members were Betty White as a ditzy widow and Rue McClanahan as an oversexed Southern belle who once insisted she treated her body like a temple.

"Yeah," said Ms. Getty as Sophia, "open to everyone, day or night."

Ms. Getty became an instant television star because of "The Golden Girls" after decades in near-obscurity as a working actress, hovering, as she put it, "somewhere under five feet" and "somewhere under 90 pounds."

She had first attracted notice as Harvey Fierstein's overbearing Jewish mom, Mrs. Beckoff, in "Torch Song Trilogy" (1982), which ran three years on Broadway despite mixed reviews. She won the 1985 Helen Hayes Award for outstanding supporting performer in a touring production of the Fierstein show.

That role brought her to the attention of NBC, which cast her in "The Golden Girls," a show the network began to counteract objections that its "Miami Vice" police drama portrayed South Florida as overly violent. "The Golden Girls" was subsequently nicknamed "Miami Nice."

The comedy brought Ms. Getty the 1988 Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy series -- she was nominated seven times -- and a 1986 Golden Globe for best performance by an actress in a comedy or musical TV series.

As a result, she received many offers to interpret feisty or eccentric mothers onscreen. The parts varied in quality but included mother to Cher ("Mask," 1985), Barry Manilow ("Copacabana," 1985) and Sylvester Stallone ("Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot," 1992).

She said she had no problem playing people much older than her. "I really don't have an actor's ego," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. "I never wanted 'stardom.' I think it's because I was a fat, funny-looking kid. It's not that I constantly looked in the mirror and saw the ravages of beauty. There was no beauty to ravage."

Estelle Scher was born July 25, 1923, in Manhattan's Lower East Side to Polish-Jewish immigrants. In 1947, she married Arthur Gettleman, who was in the retail glass business.

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