At a time when youth seemed to carry the banner for pop culture, a show about seniors couldn’t have gone more against trendlines. But with its witty characters living their best lives, despite hitting retirement age, the NBC sitcom The Golden Girls was an instant hit — becoming the No. 1 show in the Nielsen ratings in its first week in September 1985.
Called a “geriatric comedy” by the Associated Press, the secret formula was in the relatability of the storylines and the sharply written script about the friendship between four women living together in Miami Beach. The all-star cast was made of faces already familiar on the small screen, including Maude costars Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan as tough-as-nails Dorothy Zbornak and flirty Southern belle Blanche Devereaux, respectively, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Betty White as innocent, ditzy Midwesterner Rose Nylund. Stage star Estelle Getty rounded out the group as Dorothy’s mother, the ever blunt Sophia Petrillo.
The seven-season show has continued to transcend the generations, particularly finding a fan base among the LBGT community. Here, we travel down the road and back again to unveil 10 facts about the groundbreaking television show.
The Show Was Given a 13-Episode Order Before There Was a Script
During NBC’s promotional program for the 1984 season, Night Court’s Selma Diamond was introducing Miami Vice in a comedy sketch and joked, “‘Miami Nice?” It must be about a bunch of old people sitting around playing pinochle.”
The idea stuck with NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, and when producers Paul Witt and Tony Thomas came into his office to pitch a new show a few weeks later, he passed on their idea but instead, gave them an assignment: “Take some women around 60. Society has written them off, has said they're over the hill. We want them to be feisty as hell and having a great time.” Witt responded that NBC would never put it on the air. Fully confident the show would be a success, it was given a 13-episode commitment before there was even a script.
White Was Supposed To Play Blanche and McClanahan Was Originally Rose
Best known at the time as the “neighborhood nymphomaniac” Sue Ann Nevins from the classic 1970s sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, White was “thrilled at [the idea of playing] Blanche,” who was reminiscent of her previous character. Meanwhile, McClanahan was sent the script under the assumption she would audition for Rose. While she loved the script, McClanahan told her agent, “I can’t play Rose, I’ve got to play Blanche.” However, she was told Blanche was going to White, so she should focus on Rose.
During the casting process, director Jay Sandrich decided to switch things up and had the women read the opposite roles. “She did a beautiful, funny job,” McClanahan said of White’s on-the-spot role reversal. And White says of McClanahan being the perfect fit for Blanche: “[She took it] out into orbit where I never would have had the guts to go.”
A Gay Cook Named Coco Was Part of the Ensemble
The essence of The Golden Girls’ premise is female empowerment. Yet there was still a bit of hesitation over a cast of just women. So much so that in the pilot episode there was another character in the pilot: a gay housekeeper named Coco, played by Charles Levin. He was a “friend-slash-manservant,” The Atlantic described.
In the premiere, Coco offers them tea, makes enchiladas rancheros, and at one point, Sophia sums him up as “the fancy man in the kitchen.” Nevertheless, it was quickly decided that his presence wasn’t needed and Coco vanished by the second episode.
Blanche Had 165 Relationships
The women were never shy to share tales of their sexual endeavors. Refinery 29 completed a study of all seven seasons and tallied up their escapades. Blanche — to no one’s surprise — topped the list, having been with 165 men. She declared in season six that she has been in 143 relationships, and the website factored in her late husband plus 22 other unspecified men.
In a distant second was Dorothy — whose on- and off-again relationship with Stan drove much of the storyline — with a count of 43. Rose came in third with 30 men, even though she was the first to be seen in bed with a man on the show. Sophia’s total count is 25, including her supposed secret first husband, Julio Iglesias.
None of the Women Were Like Their Characters
While the line between their characters and their real personalities was blurred to the public, McClanahan says none of them were anything like their characters. “Betty, probably least of all … Betty has nothing but brains,” she said. McClanahan believed Getty was perhaps closest to Sicily-born Brooklynite Sophia, “although she was not at all pushy and vitriolic — Estelle was just funny. She was ‘Jewish New York’ funny.”
As for Arthur, McClanahan said Dorothy’s failures in life were the polar opposite of Arthur’s successes, saying she has a “very funny take on people and quick-witted.” For her part, the Oklahoma native is quick to point out her character is from Atlanta and she’s not, implying they have nothing in common.
The Cast Once Performed for the Queen Mother
Queen Elizabeth II’s mom, the Queen Mother, was such a fan of the show that she had the four leads perform at the London Palladium in 1988 during the Royal Variety Performance. The cast performed two of their kitchen table scenes and made sure to censor a few things to not offend the royals in attendance.
That said, the Queen Mum did have a sense of humor. One joke that was left intact was Dorothy asking Blanche how long she waited to have sex after her husband died, with Sophia wittingly interjecting, “Until the paramedics came.” The response made the often-reserved royal laugh out loud.
More Than 100 Cheesecakes Were Eaten During the Show
On the show, there were very few problems that a slice of cheesecake couldn’t solve, from small scuffles to big life crises. Throughout seven seasons, more than 100 cheesecakes were eaten during the ladies’ late-night kitchen table commiserations.
However, if you look closely, you’ll notice that Dorothy rarely takes a bite. In real life, Arthur reportedly hated cheesecake.
There’s Another Theme Song Verse About Aging
As one of the most recognizable — and beloved — theme songs in television history, “Thank You For Being a Friend,” performed by Cynthia Fee, captures the enduring value of friendship through its lyrics, especially with its memorable lines like, “If you threw a party, invited everyone you knew / You would see the biggest gift would be from me / And the card attached would say, ‘Thank you for being a friend.’”
But the songwriter who also originally performed the song, Andrew Gold, thought the 1978 song was a “little throwaway thing” he wrote in about an hour. Years before the show came along, he also had another verse in there that oddly hit the show right on the nose. “And when we both get older, with walking canes and hair of gray / Have no fear, even though it’s hard to hear. I will stand real close and say, ‘Thank you for being a friend.’” As appropriate as it was for the premise, that verse never made it onto the show.
White Was the Oldest of the Ensemble — And Lived the Longest
Despite Getty’s character being the oldest of the bunch, White was actually the eldest of the four actresses. She was 63 when The Golden Girls began, about four months older than Arthur. Getty’s character would have been 79 when the show started, but she was actually 62 at the time of the first show. McClanahan was the youngest of the bunch.
In 2008, Getty was the first Golden Girl to pass. She was followed by Arthur in 2009, McClanahan in 2010, and White in 2021, just weeks shy of her 100th birthday.
Each of the Four Stars Won an Emmy Award
The show was an Emmys darling from the start, eventually accumulating 68 nominations and 11 awards, with each of the four leads taking home a trophy at one point. Arthur, McClanahan, and White all received Best Actress nods in 1986, with White winning the honors. The following year, it was McClanahan who clinched the title, and then in 1988, it was Arthur’s turn— as well as Getty, who earned the Supporting Actress honor. During her speech, Arthur noted that her thank-yous were from “the four of us” since “we’ve all won.”