Thank You for Being A Friend: Remembering Estelle Getty

July 25, 2008

Picture it:  Fall, 1985, Saturday night 9PM.  We (my family and I, that is) were greatly anticipating a new NBC sitcom centered around 4 Senior Citizen ladies sharing a house in Miami.  The talent behind three of the leads was incredible.  There was Bea Arthur, playing Dorothy Zbornak, a recently divorced substitute teacher.  Rue McLanahan was Blanche Devereauz, the man-hungry widow who refused to acknowledge her advancing years.  And there was Betty White, in the role of Rose Nylund, a kind, but not-too-bright widow from St. Olaf Minnesota.  My family knew and loved these actresses, and we had a feeling that THE GOLDEN GIRLS was going to be good.

What we didn’t count on was what the fourth cast member would bring to the mix.  We had no idea who Estelle Getty was.  But by the first commercial break of that first episode, we KNEW that Estelle would be a force to be reckoned with.  Her timing as Sophia Petrillo in that first episode was perfect, and it never flagged for seven seasons.  I don’t know what was funnier, Sophia’s snappy answers to the dumb questions she had to put up with, or her stories which usually wound up being outrageous lies involving famous people.  I remember one scene in particular during the first season which put me away.  Sophia and Dorothy are playing Scrabble, and Dorothy has challenged the word that Sophia had just played, “Ma, there is no such word as ‘disdam’, ” claims Dorothy.  “There is so!” replies Sophia.  “Use it in a sentence then,” challenges Dorothy.  “Fine.  You’re no good at disdam game” Sophia replies.  From that moment on, THE GOLDEN GIRLS could do no wrong with me.

But Sophia was more than just a quick one-liner or outrageous story.  Every once in a while, Getty would show Sophia’s kind and caring side.  This happened more often in the later seasons.  One episode had Sophia encouraging a young cancer patient while doing volunteer work at the hospital, then she prevented her best friend from taking her own life.  And in an episode voted by Lifetime viewers as their favorite Sophia episode, she befriends an Alzheimer’s patient played beautifully by Joe Seneca.

Well, faithful readers, today I say good-bye to Estelle Getty and Sophia Petrillo.  They helped make a social outcast’s Saturday nights worth staying home for.  I’m grateful, though, that Getty’s work on THE GOLDEN GIRLS will not be forgotten easily, thanks to the series availability on DVD and the twice daily airings on Lifetime.  More importantly, I’m grateful for the hours of laughter that Sophia Petrillo gave us all.  Sophia would often talk about her late husband Sal.  I like to think that Sophia and Sal are now really together again in Heaven, and that Heaven has become an even more interesting, colorful, and fun place now that she’s there.  I just know that when I get there, I want to try Sophia’s Italian cuisine.


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