When I first heard about a new show that was going to air that was about 3 middle-aged women and an elderly woman living together, I thought to myself, “Who the hell is going to watch that?”
It was the 1980s, and youth and beauty were the thing. That’s not to say that youth and beauty haven’t always been the thing—because they have—but the ’80s marked a very special time in age discrimination and judgment on physical appearance. You can thank the aerobics craze and the emergence of the supermodel. Not to mention the fact that the hippie movement was only 20 years before, and the mantra Don’t trust anyone over 30 was still being chanted (even though hippies themselves were now well over 30). And there was a whole new brand of disrespect for older people, at least (shamefully) in the U.S.
So, when that new show came along, I didn’t think it stood a chance. Like many TV shows, this one would come and go without a blink, I was sure. Boy, was I wrong. The show was, of course, The Golden Girls.
The show was about two widows, Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan) and Rose Nyland (Betty White), and a divorcee, Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), who end up living together to make ends meet. Dorothy’s mother, Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty), a crusty old Italian lady from Brooklyn with an acerbic tongue and who uses the fact that she’s had a stroke to excuse the ass-ripping comments that fly out of her mouth, moves in with them. They all portray different types of people: the serious, studious type; the oversexed vixen; the simple-minded, innocent farm girl; and…well, Sophia.
As it turned out, The Golden Girls was groundbreaking. Not only did it feature strong, intelligent (mostly) older women front and center, it touched on subjects that were rarely spoken about on TV, such as—
- Sexual abuse and harassment (Both Rose and Blanche experience this, Rose by her dentist and Blanche by her professor)
- “Chosen” families, rather than blood families
- Immigration and deportation (in one episode, a very young Mario Lopez plays a student of Dorothy’s that gets deported)
- Age discrimination (Rose is denied a job because of her age)
- Breast cancer
- Women and sex and the need for protection
- Being an older woman trying to find love again
Very few TV shows tackled any of these subjects (although All in the Family and Maude were ahead of their times as well, and addressed some of these in the 1970s).
The Golden Girls didn’t shy away from the subject of The Gays, either. If you are a The Golden Girls aficionado, you will recall that the very first few episodes had another character in the house: a gay housekeeper named Coco. There was no mistaking that Coco was gay because his mannerisms and way of speaking were stereotypically gay, and there were innuendos about his sexuality as well.
And then there was Dorothy’s high school friend, Jean. Jean comes to visit Dorothy after the loss of her partner, Pat. The other ladies (with the exception of Sophia) assume that Pat was a man. She falls in love with Rose and we see Rose come to terms with this. The highlight for me in this episode was when Dorothy and Sophia tell Blanche that Jean is a lesbian, and she responds by saying she has nothing against them and asks, “Isn’t Danny Thomas one?” Dorothy replies, “Not Lebanese, Blanche! Lesbian.” And then, of course, comes her indignation that Jean would choose someone like Rose instead of her.
There was also the episode where Sophia is getting married. She gets upset over a disagreement with Dorothy and locks herself in the bathroom, and the others try to prod her out. The caterer comes in to see what the delay is and, again, he is stereotypically effeminate. Addressing Dorothy, he says, “She doesn’t approve? Now look here, stretch. I have a hundred cheese puffs and a sensitive assistant both on the verge of collapse. Whatever the problem is, overlook it. My mother did with my marriage.” A short while later, he say, “This is more moving than Susan Hayward’s climatic speech in I Want To Live!” Blanche turns to him and says, “Boy, you’re just ready to fly right on outta here, aren’t you?” Although one could argue that this was not a politically correct statement to make—in fact, I very distinctly remember it being cut from the episode in some syndication runs—the caterer’s response was not to be intimidated or shamed. Instead he replies, “Well excuse me for living, Anita Bryant!”
Plus, Dorothy’s brother (who we never see) is a cross-dresser. Many, many references are made to this, mostly hilarious, not judgmental.
In the 7 years that Golden Girls was on, it touched on so many topics, I could go on for a long time. But I’d like to go back to the crazy stuff I’ve been doing and talk about the trivial, nobody-cares shit.
Many well-known actors were on the show. Here’s a list:
- Cesar Romero played a distinguished suitor to Sophia and Blanche. Romero was a seasoned actor by that time, but since I’m in Geek-land here, I’ll just mention that he played the Joker on Batman.
- Jeffrey Tambor. Tambor was in just about every show ever created, but is probably most well known for his role on Arrested Development.
- Anne Francis was in one episode. She has a long career behind her and has been in many, many shows (including 2 episodes of The Twilight Zone) but she was immortalized for her role in the movie Forbidden Planet via the theme song to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
- Dick Van Dyke crushed the episode he was in when he showed up in court in a clown costume. His trademark slapstick style worked beautifully here.
- Quentin Tarantino — WHAAAAAAAAT? Yup, THAT Quentin Tarantino (are there others?). He played one of the Elvii at Sophia’s wedding. That episode is worth watching just for the expression on Dorothy’s face when she walks out at the beginning of the ceremony and sees a bunch of Elvii singing in her living room.
- Brenda Vaccaro played the wife of the cross-dressing brother in one episode.
- One up-and-coming young actor played a police officer who becomes attached to Blanche: George Clooney. (Clooney, by the way, is the nephew of Rosemary Clooney, a popular singer of the 1950s. You might know her hit song “Mambo Italiano.”)
- Mickey Rooney played Sophia’s boyfriend in one episode. Dorothy is suspicious of the money he’s acquired and the question throughout is, is he a bank robber or isn’t he?
- Don Ameche plays the role of Brother Martin, a Catholic monk, who tells Rose that he is her father.
- Leslie Nielsen appears in the final two episodes as Blanche’s uncle Lucas Hollingsworth. The series ended with Dorothy marrying him, thus breaking up the team.
Some actors played themselves, such as Burt Reynolds, Sonny Bono, Julio Inglesias, Bob Hope, Alex Trebek (the host of Jeopordy), Lyle Waggoner (a regular cast member on The Carol Burnett Show and Steve Trevor on the original Wonder Woman), and horoscope lady Jeane Dixon.
Many of you might already know that the show Empty Nest was a spin-off Golden Girls, but did you know that the “pilot” that aired on Golden Girls did not have any of the people who were ended up in the cast, with the exception of David Leisure (who, by the way, was also Joe Izuzu in the Isuzu commercials of the time)? The pilot starred Rita Moreno and Paul Dooley. The final cast of Empty Nest starred Richard Mulligan, Kristy McNichol, Dinah Manoff, and Park Overall, as well as Leisure.
Golden Girls was so well written, well directed, and well acted that it has survived the test of time. 30+ years later, it’s still as hilarious as it was when it was first on the air. I think it’s because the show didn’t rely on the flavor-of-the-day subjects, but rather on perennial issues that “women of a certain age” always have, and probably always will, face. But the dialogue was so clever and the actors so good at what they did that people from across all age groups, genders, economic statuses, etc., joined in the laughter. Sadly, 3 of the 4 actors have died, leaving us with only Betty White, long may she reign.
What other geekery can I offer about Golden Girls? Oh, here’s one more little tidbit. You know that opening theme song, “Thank you for being a friend”? That was originally released by Andrew Gold, an accomplished musician, in 1978. None of his songs were huge smash hits, but I’m sure Mr. Gold was quite happy with his residuals from Golden Girls (he died in 2011).
Thanks for joining me again in my retro TV fangirl madness. Now go turn on TVLand and watch The Golden Girls. It’s on ALL the time.
Here’s one more clip, just because. I want to make you smile. It always makes me smile.