The late, great Estelle Getty—best known for her performance as acerbic octogenarian Sophia Petrillo on “The Golden Girls”—would have turned 91 today. She was born in New York City in 1923 to Sarah and Charles Scher, Jewish-Polish immigrants who worked in the glass business. Getty aspired to act from a young age—she tried her hand at vaudeville, Yiddish theater, and Borscht Belt comedy—but didn’t get her big break until she was in her fifties, when playwright Harvey Fierstein cast her in his autobiographical Torch Song Trilogy as his mother. (Panicky millennials, take heed: success comes to those who accost famous writers backstage, as Getty did.)
Writes Beth Kander for Jewish Women’s Archive:
It was the “Torch” that shined the way to Estelle’s “Golden” opportunity. When she first auditioned for the role of sharp-witted, unapologetic Sicilian octogenarian Sophia Petrillo, she was told she was too young [Estelle was, in fact, more than a year younger than Bea Arthur, who played Sophia’s daughter Dorothy]. But Estelle wasn’t letting this role pass her by. She got herself a gray wig, old-age makeup, and dowdy old-woman clothes, and made sure NBC knew that she was the one for Sophia. She was right. She wound up not only getting the part, but also getting seven consecutive Best Supporting Actress Emmy Award nominations for her role as Sophia, finally snagging a win in 1988. Sophia led to several other snarky-senior roles for Getty. Finally, in her sixties and seventies, little Estelle Scher’s lifelong dreams were coming true.
She went on to become one of the most beloved comedic actresses of all time, winning two Golden Globes (in addition to the Emmy) for her turn as Petrillo from 1985-1992. When she died in 2008 at the age of 84, the tributes flowed. “Our mother-daughter relationship was one of the greatest comic duos ever, and I will miss her,” said Bea Arthur, who played Dorothy Zbornak.
Estelle Getty was part of the fabric of my childhood—I watched re-runs of “The Golden Girls” religiously with my mother and sister, too young to understand most of the political subtext and sexual double entendres, but old enough to be thrilled by Getty’s eviscerating wit and precision timing—and a sitcom full of hilarious, post-menopausal women who talked frankly about sex. (Would a major network back such a premise today?) (Don’t answer that.)
Anyway, there’s a lot to lament about the state of the world right now, but a few minutes of Estelle Getty-as-Sophia Petrillo is a fine way to start your morning. Then at least one good thing has happened today, right?
Picture it: Sicily, 1922!