‘The Golden Girls’ Turn 35by Marc Berman
Picture this: Saturday, September 14, 1985. The new television season was about to get underway with NBC, the most-watched network, looking to create another night of “Must See TV” following the current Cosby Show-anchored Thursday juggernaut. The plan: establish a 2-hour Saturday sitcom block highlighted by newbie The Golden Girls at 9 p.m., which in this pre-social media era generated the greatest buzz of any upcoming new series following NBC’s presentation to media buyers and advertisers.
A sitcom focused on the lives of four women, of course, was nothing new. Think NBC’s The Facts of Life, which was spun-off from Diff’rent Strokes and debuted in August 1979. But The Golden Girls focused on a demographic the networks and advertisers were not necessarily interested in, 50+. And it broke the stereotype that members of this age group, four women in this case, were simply sitting in rocking chairs with no measurable value.
Unlike anything we had ever seen on television before, The Golden Girls featured an ensemble cast of four older single women (Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty) sharing a house in Miami who were active, social, imperative and dealing with the issues of that stage in life.
Such issues included illness, suicide, sexual harassment, AIDS, anti-Semitism and the LGBTQ community, which all still resonate today.
“We were four active, vibrant, funny women, three of whom were still working and all who dared to still have an active sex life,” I recall Betty White telling me for an interview I did with her for Mediaweek magazine in 2010. “We were all widows, but not lonely. And we were women to be valued and cared about, not cast aside, and an important part of society.”
Twenty-five million viewers tuned in for a glimpse of The Golden Girls on this day 35 years ago, which ultimately resulted in a seven season run, 11 Emmy Awards, Emmy wins for each of the principal stars (only three television sitcoms historically has accomplished that, including All in the Family and Will & Grace), and four women who became the poster children (or poster seniors, perhaps) for why age should still be valued.
In honor of 35 years of beloved The Golden Girls, here a series of 10 factoids you may or may not already know.
1) Betty White was originally considered for the role of Blanche Devereaux because of her four season stint as man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “I didn’t want to be typecast, so we switched things around and I ended up as cockeyed optimist Rose Nylund,” said White. “There were things Rue (McClanahan) brought to the table as Blanche that I never could have.”
2) The Golden Girls followed The Facts of Life in season one on NBC, finishing its inaugural season ranked No. 7 overall (tied with ABC’s Dynasty) and building 20 notches from The Facts of Life (which finished at No. 27).
3) Betty White and Bea Arthur were 63 years old when the series began, versus 62 for Estelle Getty (who played Arthur’s mother), and just 51 for Rue McClanahan.
4) Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan worked together on All in the Family spin0ff Maude, which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1978. McClanahan and Betty White appeared together on NBC comedy Mama’s Family, which debuted in January 1983 and was spun-off from the series of “The Family” sketches on The Carol Burnett Show. When NBC canceled Mama’s Family after two seasons, both actresses were no longer available when it was revived in first-run syndication.
5) Estelle Getty as Sophia was originally planned as a recurring role, but was immediately upgraded following the audience’s uproarious reaction to her in the pilot episode.
6) There was initially a fifth regular character on The Golden Girls: gay housekeeper Coco, played by Charles Levin. But the producers felt the focus should remain primarily between the four women and he disappeared without mention after the pilot episode.
7) Nicknamed “Miami Nice” (NBC detective drama Miami Vice was a top-rated series at that time), the core to the comedy was the relationships between the women. “We had a bond on screen,” White recalled. “I do think viewers could relate to that, whether you were young or old…or in-between. And we were not afraid to tackle issues.”
8) Spinoff The Golden Palace, which aired for one season on CBS (from 1992-93) and did not include Bea Arthur, was originally going to be telecast on NBC. But CBS immediately made a full season (24 episode) commitment versus only 13 episodes from NBC.
9) CBS successfully capitalized on the success of The Golden Girls care of a younger aged version called Designing Women (which also aired for seven seasons - from 1986 to 1993). Fox also utilized the concept of four female friends with comedy Living Single, which ran from 1993 to 1998. But there was never a surge in programming featuring older characters despite The Golden Girls.
10) Following the success last fall of A Very Brady Renovation on HGTV, featuring a remodel of The Brady Bunch house, Drew and Jonathan Scott of The Property Brothers have publicly said they want to renovate The Golden Girls home.
Happy Birthday Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia
Thirty-five years later, new generations of fans — young and old — have discovered The Golden Girls. On this day, September 14, 2020, 35 years after debuting, we raise our glasses in toast of those four beloved ladies, and we “thank them for being a friend.”