Betty White deciding to play one last joke on us all by dying a mere 17 days before what would have been her 100th birthday was perhaps the ultimate send-off from an actress who entertained audiences with her humor for more than 80 years. Although The Golden Girls, a sitcom about four older women who share a house in Florida, completed its run nearly 30 years ago, a whole new generation of young audiences — many of whom weren’t even born during the show’s original airing — love it because the writing is brilliant and continues to stand the test of time. Sadly, the passing of White closes the final chapter on the lives of The Golden Girls cast, with the other three — Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan — having died more than a decade ago. Let’s take a look back at these four lovely ladies’ careers, shall we?
Arthur played Dorothy, a retired substitute teacher who had a sarcastic personality, a quick-temper, and stayed up to date on current events. Arthur started her career in entertainment in 1947, performing in various Off-Broadway theatrical performances, even winning a Tony Award in 1966 for Best Featured Actress in the musical Mame. She made it big on television after being cast as Maude on the sitcom All in the Family, leading to her own spin-off series for which she won several Golden Globes and Emmy Awards. After The Golden Girls ended in 1992, Arthur continued to make guest appearances on TV, including lending her voice on an episode of Futurama and playing Larry David’s mother in Curb Your Enthusiasm. She remained in the public to the very end, passing away from lung cancer in 2009 at the age of 86.
Getty was cast as Sophie, a quick-witted woman with a talent for cooking. Although Sophie was Dorothy’s mother, in real life Getty was actually a year younger than Arthur. Getty was a late bloomer when it came to achieving fame. Although she had acting aspirations since the 1940s, she didn’t get noticed until she was nearly 60, after her breakthrough performance as Mrs. Beckoff in the Broadway production Torch Song Trilogy. She began showing signs of dementia while still on The Golden Girls, struggling to remember her lines. She eventually succumbed to the disease in 2008 at 84.
McClanahan played the role of Blanche, an art museum employee who was self-absorbed and enjoyed the attention of men. McClanahan had previously worked with Arthur in Maude and with White in All in the Family. Unlike the rest of the cast, she devoted most of her career to appearances on drama shows and made-for-TV movies. She also voiced a character on King of the Hill and also remained active on Broadway into her early 70s. She died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in 2010 at the age of 76.
White played the ditzy but loveable Rose, known for sharing her silly stories about growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota. In terms of her accomplishments and longevity, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see anybody duplicate what White achieved. She was a television pioneer, appearing on an experimental TV show in 1939 at 17. She was also among the first women to have complete creative control over a TV program, hosting and producing a variety show which included a female director and the first African American (Arthur Duncan) to be a regular cast member on a TV show. After a couple of decades appearing on talk shows and game shows, she went into acting full-time in the 1970s, playing Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Taylor Moore Show. Although she remained busy after The Golden Girls and its sequel Golden Palace went off the air, it took a wildly popular Snickers commercial that aired during the 2010 Super Bowl to send her career rocketing again. Thanks to a Facebook campaign, she became the oldest person to host Saturday Night Life at 88 years old. She also starred on the sitcom Hot in Cleveland for six seasons and served as executive producer of a show featuring elderly people pranking younger folks. She was set to mark her 100th birthday on January 17th, 2022 with the theatrical release of Betty White: A Celebration. Although she died on December 31st, the documentary was to be released as planned. So don’t feel sad, she lived the kind of life we’d all dream of!