Actress Betty White’s castmates on The Golden Girls used to tease her constantly about her love of animals — and one time they even convinced her that a stray cat had gotten trapped in the wall! “They had a crew member put a tape recorder in a wall on the set,” one of Betty’s pals recalled. “It played a loop of a cat meowing woefully. Betty was beside herself! She told the crew to contact the fire department and stood there talking to the wall, saying, ‘It’s going to be all right, sweetie, we will get you out of there soon.’”
When it was all revealed to be a big prank, Betty, being the great sport she always was, laughed along with everyone else. “We all had such fun together,” Betty recalled. “It was such a special experience.” Now, more than 30 years after the debut of that groundbreaking series — in which four feisty women proved that life doesn’t stop at 50 — Betty, the show’s only surviving star, opens up about her personal memories.
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“I can’t believe I’m the only one left because I [was] the oldest!” said Betty, who, like her co-stars Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan, was already a sitcom vet by the time she was cast as tender-hearted Rose in 1985. The chemistry between the three women, along with television newcomer Estelle Getty (a Broadway pro hired to play wisecracking, scene-stealing Sophia) was immediate. “It started the first day of the first read-through for the pilot,” Betty recalled. “We showed up for the read-through [and] it was like batting a tennis ball over the net. It was so exciting to be with four people with that chemistry — I’ll never forget that first read. It was like we had been working together forever! I still get goosebumps thinking about it.”
Betty and Rue (who played Blanche, the man-hungry Southern belle, and owner of the Miami home the women shared) were already pals, having worked together on Mama’s Family, and were delighted to reconnect on the Golden Girls set. “They would play little word games when the cameras weren’t rolling,” recalled the friend. “There was such love and friendship between them.” “We adored each other,” chirped Betty of her dearest pal. She admits she was heartbroken when Rue passed away from a stroke in 2010 at age 76. “It hurts more than I even thought it would if that’s even possible,” said Betty. “She was everything, as far as a friend is concerned.”
But things didn’t always click as easily for Betty when it came to her other castmates — namely, with Bea. Although they very much respected each other as actresses, naturally high-spirited Betty and introverted and intense Bea (who played the sharp-tongued, cynical Dorothy) sometimes clashed. “You didn’t mess with Bea!” Betty said of her co-star, who passed away from cancer in 2009 at 86. “Bea was very strong. But you loved her.” As one friend explained, “Betty is Ms. Sunshine, and it drew the cast and crew to her. Bea thought it was an act — she would barely give Betty the time of day.” Betty said, “She found me a pain in the neck sometimes. It was my positive attitude — and that made Bea mad sometimes. Sometimes if I was happy, she’d be furious!”
But another set insider saw the relationship differently. “Betty felt like Bea never truly liked her, but the truth is Bea had warmer feelings for her than she let on,” confided the insider. “She just had trouble expressing them.” Despite their differences, Betty and Bea did bond when it really mattered. In the first season, both were the primary caretakers of their ailing mothers, who passed away within one month of each other. “There were a lot of hand-holding and condolences,” remembered the friend. “They really pulled together whenever any of them were experiencing grief, and I think that carried over into their on-camera interactions.”
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“You can’t work that closely together and not become a family,” Betty confided. “I hear these horror stories about series where they don’t speak on camera. How do you do comedy if you’re not speaking to each other?” Betty’s relationship with Estelle also grew during the seven-season run of The Golden Girls. “Estelle was shy, and it didn’t help that she had trouble adjusting to doing weekly TV. She was intimidated by working with these TV veterans,” said the friend. But Estelle, who died in 2008 at age 84 from Lewy body dementia, and Betty connected over their shared love of show business. “Estelle came in as an outsider, but Betty took a liking to her. She loved hearing Estelle’s stories about growing up in the Yiddish theater in New York and doing stand-up at the upstate resorts. Betty just lapped those stories up,” said the friend. Betty remembered her this way: “Estelle was just incredible.”
Although the women typically saw each other only on the set, they did travel together to London once to meet Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother (who was a great fan of The Golden Girls), and they even socialized on occasion. “Betty would invite everyone over to have a meal at her house, which they’d agree to — as long as Betty wasn’t cooking!” remembered the insider with a laugh. “I’m not a big cook. I only go in the kitchen to feed my dog,” confided the star, who employed the services of a personal chef when she hosted dinner parties for her co-stars.
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Even Bea (who on most evenings “just liked to go home and read the paper,” according to her son Matthew Saks) enjoyed treating her co-stars to a special outing now and again. “She was known for being tight with a buck,” confided the insider, “but she would spring for tickets for all four of them to attend a play together.” Ultimately it was Bea who insisted on going out on top, and she pulled the plug on The Golden Girls in 1992 despite the fact that it was still getting good ratings. “There was not a need to get away because she was unhappy with anything, in particular, she just had to go,” remembered Bea’s son Matthew. “She was getting up there in age and she had other ideas of things she wanted to do — including relax.”
The taping of the last episode of the show, in which Bea’s character, Dorothy, unexpectedly remarries, was an emotional experience for the cast, crew and the 27.2 million viewers who tuned in to say goodbye to their favorite Girls. “The last episode of The Golden Girls — it was a very wet show,” confided Betty. “There were lots of tears.”
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