Golden Girl Betty White

THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – by Tim Nasson, publisher of Wild About Movies

November 1, 2004

Whether you’re of my generation, who watched “The
Golden Girls” during their original run, Saturday
nights on NBC at 9:00pm, with their grandmother; or of an
older generation who, with friends, gathered around
the TV in your living room, (before going out to the
gay clubs), cocktails in hand, laughing, sometimes so hard
you cried; or were one of the many who flocked to gay
clubs to watch the show with friends and strangers
alike – those Saturday nights from 1985-1992 will
never be forgotten, (epecially now that “The Golden
Girls: Season One” is captured forever on DVD.)

“Isn’t it remarkable,” recalls “Golden Girl” herself,
Betty White, to me during a recent conversation at her home in Beverly Hills. “The gay bars, when we
were on Saturday nights, first run, would shut down
the music when the show came on and the dancing
wouldn’t start back up again until the end credits
were over. It was wonderful.”

Since the show’s debut twenty years ago, there has
always seemed to be a fascination between gay men and
boys and “The Golden Girls.” And Betty White, now
eighty-two, thinks she knows why. “I think the gay
community likes old ladies,” she says, laughing. “I
know I get a tremendous amount of mail from men who
talk about watching the show when they were growing up
with their mothers or grandmothers, but mostly it’s
the grandmothers that they watched with. Maybe, in a
way, we were an extension. Maybe we were their
surrogate grandmothers.”

While Betty White and the rest of the “Girls,” Estelle
Getty, Bea Arthur and Rue McLanahan may be best known
for their roles in the salty, senior sitcom, they each
began their half century careers long before “The
Golden Girls” hit the airwaves.

“I think most people of a certain age,” says White,
speaking of anyone under forty, “thinks of me only as
Rose,” from “The Golden Girls,” “but the older
generation, of course, also knows me as Sue Ann from
‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ where instead of playing
the truly naïve Rose, I was the neighborhood
nymphomaniac.” For that role, White won two Emmy
Awards.

It will probably come as a surprise to most that for
“The Golden Girls,” Betty White was originally cast as
Blanche.

“They wrote the pilot with me as Blanche,”
exclaims Betty White. “But Jay Sandrich, who directed me in
many episodes on ‘MTM’ and was directing the pilot for
‘The Golden Girls’ piped in before we shot the pilot
that if I was going to play another man-hungry
neighborhood you-know-what, the audience was going to
equate it with Sue Ann and just a continuation of her
role. So he had the bright idea to have Rue, who was
intended to play Rose, play Blanche. Rue had just come
off ‘Mama’s Family,’ where she played a quiet and
rather mousey sister. So it was a perfect switch, in
hindsight, but I was a little scared. I knew Blanche.
That would have been easy. I didn’t exactly know how
to play dumb. The best advice I got was, again, from
Jay Sandrich. He said, ‘Rose takes every word for its
literal meaning. She knows no sarcasm, no nothing. If
somebody said Rose could eat a horse, she’d call the
SPCA.’ And Rue, my god, she took Blanche out into
orbit where I would have never dared to go. So I just
think it worked out beautifully. If I had half the sex
life Blanche had I would have been dead from
exhaustion.”

The fact that the show debuted and was successful,
smack, dab in the middle of the Reagan era, with “The
Cosby Show,” that clean, wholesome, American family television show as #1 in the ratings, was a feat unto
itself. As anyone who has ever seen an episode knows,
“The Golden Girls” are known for their off-colored
jokes, constant talk about sex and everything in
between.

“I think the secret that allowed us to get away with
everything we did get away with was the fact that we
were four old ladies,” says White. “Had we been four young women we wouldn’t have gotten away with
anything. Blanche, having the sex life that everyone
would be shocked at, had she been twenty, got away
with it because of her age. We were past that youth
thing. The writers had an incredible concept.” And in
its first week on the air, in the fall of 1985, “The
Golden Girls” debuted at #1, beating “The Cosby Show,”
and for the rest of its first run, playing see-saw for
the #1 position with “Cosby” each week. “Our show put
Saturday night TV on the map,” says White. Before “The
Girls” came along, no one watched TV on Saturday
nights and now that they’re gone, no one does anymore.

While all four stars of “The Golden Girls” ended up
winning Emmy Awards for Best Acting, some more than
once, White was the first to win the coveted award.
(Although, she was nominated for an Emmy a record
seven times, all seven seasons during the show’s run,
for Best Actress in A Television Comedy. Estelle Getty
also was nominated for seven consecutive Emmys on “The
Golden Girls,” and won one, but in the Supporting
Actress category.)

“I was unfortunate and deeply fortunate at the same
time to get the first Emmy Award for ‘The Golden
Girls,'” explains White. “It was a little awkward on
the set the next week when I had to go back to work. I
tried to make it clear in my acceptance speech that it
was a four-way award. There really was no way you
could separate any of our performances. They were all
tied into each other. But it was a little, shall we
say, cool for about the first week back on the set,
but then, when everybody started inning it was fine.

“You don’t get writing like that very often,” White
continues, reflecting on “The Golden Girls.” “The
writers were so ahead of the game and they had our
characters so beautifully sorted out. We were like
four points on a compass, each one distinct from the
other. But they all blended so well that we didn’t
have to stray from the script. We could just relax and
enjoy that delicious writing.

“The writing is why people loved the show so much, I
think. People still come up to me and tell me they
have seen every episode a dozen times. And they each
have their favorites. I even think the audience knows
the lines now better than we ever did. Now you can
give us all the credit you want. But we can’t save a
badly written show. We can screw up a good show, but
we can’t save a bad one. It’s the writing that allows
the show to hold up.”

“I am kind of surprised that the show is being
released on DVD,” says White. “It’s on TV all the time
in syndication. It flatters me, though, that people
love it so much that they want it to be part of their
personal collection.”

And, of course, the DVD box set, sans commercials, is
replete with extras, including Joan and Melissa Rivers
dishing “The Girls'” sometimes outrageous wardrobes.”They might think the clothes are funny,”
laughs Betty White, “but I and Bea and Rue still wear some
of them.”

One of the characteristics, other than Rose’s naïveté,
that made Rose, well so Rose, was her constant
references to St. Olaf and those unpronounceable
Scandinavian words. “That was something else,” White
recalls. “All of the girls would usually be sitting
around a kitchen table whenever Rose talked about St.
Olaf. And the other three girls were just looking at
me, having made their bets, wondering how fast I was
going to screw up the pronunciation.”

Betty White, not happy with the way television sitcoms are
headed today, has some advice for writers, as does her
colleague, actress Doris Roberts, another multi-Emmy
winning senior citizen actress. “It’s the writers who
have age block. The sitcoms today, for the most part,
the ones that deal with all the kids,” says White, not
mentioning “Friends” by name, but certainly alluding
to it, “don’t get it. The writers who are all young,
because that’s what the network executives think
works, write jokes that are funny this week but fall
flat next week. The lack of good sitcoms today is
because we need seasoned, good writers.”

I ask Betty White, hoping my hardest, if she and the
“Girls” have any secret plans for a reunion television
special. “Oh. The producers have asked and asked,” she
says, with excitement. “They have asked so many times.
And I think it would be wonderful, Rue thinks it would
be wonderful, poor Sofia, I mean Estelle is not well
enough to do any more work, but Bea just doesn’t want
to do it. And without her, it wouldn’t work. Look at
how ‘The Golden Palace’ tanked, without her. She’s
probably right. Quit while you’re ahead.”

Betty White, though not quite a “Golden Girl” anymore, is
certainly in high demand, and as popular as ever. This
year, in fact, she was nominated for her fifteenth
Emmy Award for her four week guest spot on “The
Practice.” And she would love to work with David E.
Kelly again, either on “Boston Legal” or anything else
he has up his sleeve. “His writing is genius,” says
White.

“The Golden Girls: Season One” on DVD is here,
finally. The box set is now on store shelves just in
time for the Holidays. Season Two is being released in
May 2005.

Betty White Golden Girls