Betty White In Her Own Words — My 'Golden Girls' Memories
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 recalls.
“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 in October 2015 at the age of 93, three decades after the debut of the groundbreaking series in which four feisty women proved that life doesn’t stop at 60. “It was such a special experience.” Betty, like her co-stars Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan, was already a sitcom vet by the time she was cast as tenderhearted and gullible 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 on the set when the cameras weren’t rolling,” says the friend. “There was such love and friendship between them.” Betty lived through the deaths of all three of her co-stars, and she took them hard.
“We adore each other,” Betty once said of her dear pal Rue, later admitting she was heartbroken when Rue passed away from a stroke in 2010 at age 76. “She was everything as far as a friend is concerned,” said Betty. “We had such fun together.” 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, intense Bea (who played sharp-tongued, cynical Dorothy) sometimes clashed. “You didn’t mess with Bea!” Betty once said of her co-star, who died of cancer in 2009 at age 86. “Bea was very strong. But you loved her.”
Betty, one friend explains, “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 once acknowledged, “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 sees 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,” confides 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 for their ailing mothers, who passed away within one month of each other.
“There was a lot of handholding and condolences,” remembers the friend. “They really pulled together whenever any of them was experiencing grief, and I think that carried over into their on-camera interactions.”
“You can’t work that closely together and not become a family,” Betty explained. “I hear these horror stories about series where they don’t speak off-camera. How do you do comedy if you’re not speaking to each other?” Betty’s relationship with Estelle also flourished 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,” says the friend. But Estelle, who died in 2008 at age 84 from Lewy body dementia, connected with Betty 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,” says the friend. Betty summed her up this way: “Estelle was just incredible.”
Though the women typically saw each other only on the set, they did socialize 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,” the insider recalls with a laugh. Betty would hire a professional chef when she hosted dinner parties for pals, and was open about her lack of cooking skills, once joking, “I only go in the kitchen to feed my dog!”
Even Bea enjoyed treating her co-stars to a special outing now and then. “She was known for being tight with a buck,” says 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. She pulled the plug on The Golden Girls in 1992 despite the fact that it was still earning solid ratings. “There was not a need to get away because she was unhappy with anything in particular; she just had to go,” explains 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 show’s last episode, in which Dorothy unexpectedly remarried, was emotional for the cast, crew, and millions of viewers who tuned in to say farewell. “The last episode of Golden Girls — it was a very wet show,” recalled Betty. “There were lots of tears.”