Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Estelle Getty – 1923-2008

Estelle Getty has died.

“I am the mother,” she declared in her opening line in “Torch Song Trilogy,” Harvey Fierstein’s 1981 play about the travails of a gay man in New York City, and as a summary of her career, her character was right.

“I’ve played mothers to heroes and mothers to zeroes,” Ms. Getty wrote in her autobiography, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now … So What?” (Contemporary Books, 1988). “I’ve played Irish mothers, Jewish mothers, Italian mothers, Southern mothers, mothers in plays by Neil Simon and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. I’ve played mother to everyone but Attila the Hun.”

The book was a response to Ms. Getty’s sudden and resounding popularity in the most famous of her mother roles, the tart-tongued, white-haired Sophia Petrillo, oldest of the four previously married women sharing a Miami home in “The Golden Girls.” In the show, Sophia was the mother of Dorothy Zbornak, played by Bea Arthur who, in real life, was older than Ms. Getty.

Sophia, characterized by her bluntness and cranky lamentations about old age, treated her daughter with a kind of loving contempt, and their two roommates, the man-obsessed Blanche (Rue McClanahan), and the dim-witted Rose (Betty White), with the eye-rolling impatience of one who will not indulge the self-delusions of others. When Blanche complained that her life was an open book, Sophia witheringly replied: “Your life is an open blouse.”

She was the reason I watched The Golden Girls.