“They had a crew member put a tape recorder in a wall on the set,” one of White’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 alright, sweetie, we will get you out of there soon.'”
When it was revealed to be a big prank, White, being the great sport she always was, laughed along with everyone else. “We all had such fun together,” she said. “It was such a special experience.”
Now more than 30 years after the debut of that groundbreaking series — in which four feisty women proved that life doesn’t stop at 50 — White, the show’s only surviving star, opens up about her personal memories.
“I can’t believe I’m the only one left because I [was] the oldest!” she said, who, like her costars Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan, was already a sitcom vet by the time she was cast as tender hearted Rose Nylund in 1985. The chemistry between the three women, along with television newcomer Estelle Getty (a Broadway pro hired to play wisecracking, scene-stealing Sophia Petrillo) was immediate.
“We showed up for the readthrough [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,” she added.
White and McClanahan (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 when the cameras weren’t rolling,” recalls a friend. “There was such love and friendship between them.”
“We adored each other,” White chimed in about her old friend. She admits she was heartbroken when McClanahan passed away from a stroke in 2010 at age 76. “It hurts more than I even thought it would, if that’s even possible,” she said, adding, “She was everything, as far as a friend is concerned."
Things didn’t always click as easily for White when it came to her other castmates — namely, with Arthur. Although they very much respected each other as actresses, naturally high-spirited White and introverted Arthur (who played the sharp-tongued, cynical Dorothy) sometimes clashed. “You didn’t mess with Bea!,” White says of her costar, who passed away from cancer in 2009 at 86. “Bea was very strong. But you loved her.”
As one friend explained, “Betty 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.”
White threw in, “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.”
Another set insider saw the relationship a little differently. “Betty felt like Bea never truly liked her, but the truth is that Bea had warmer feelings for her than she let on,” confided the insider. “She just had trouble expressing them.” Despite their differences, White and Arthur did bond when it really mattered.
In the first season, both were primary caretakers of their ailing mothers, who passed away within one month of each other. “There was a lot of hand-holding and condolences,” remembers the friend. “They really pulled together whenever any of them were 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,” White confided. “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?”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show alum’s relationship with Estelle Getty also grew 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,” said a pal. But Getty, who died in 2008 at 84 from Lewy body dementia, and White connected 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,” said the friend. White remembers her this way: “Estelle was just incredible.”
Although the women typically saw each other only on the set, they did travel together to London once to meet Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother (who was a big fan of The Golden Girls), and they even socialized 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 said with a laugh. “I’m not a big cook. I only go in the kitchen to feed my dog,” confides the star, who employed the services of a personal chef when she hosted dinner parties for her costars.
Even Arthur (who on most evenings “just liked to go home and read the paper,” according to her son Matthew Saks) enjoyed treating her costars to a special outing now and again. “She was known for being tight with a buck,” the insider dished, “but she would spring for tickets for all four of them to attend a play together.”
Ultimately it was Arthur who insisted on going out on top, and she pulled the plug on The Golden Girls in 1992 despite the fact that it was still getting good ratings. “There was not a need to get away because she was unhappy with anything in particular, she just had to go,” Arthur’s son said. “She was getting up there in age and she had other ideas of things she wanted to do — including relax.”
The taping of the last episode of the show, in which Arthur’s character, Dorothy, unexpectedly remarried, was an emotional experience for the cast, crew and the 27.2 million viewers who tuned in to say goodbye to the favorite Girls.
“The last episode of The Golden Girls — it was a very wet show,” White concluded. “There were a lot of tears.”