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Actress Estelle Getty


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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Emmy-winning actress Estelle Getty, best known as a wise-cracking octogenarian on the popular 1980s and '90s sitcom "The Golden Girls," died on Tuesday. She was 84.

Getty, who spent four decades toiling in show business before winning fame and critical recognition as Bea Arthur's sassy, 80-year-old mother on the hit show, had been suffering from dementia.

"As of 5:35 this morning surrounded by her family in her Hollywood Hills home, Estelle Getty passed away peacefully in her sleep of natural causes," her longtime manager, Alan Siegel, said in a statement.

"Her family and close friends thank everyone for being so loving and supportive of Estelle in her last few years," Siegel said.

Born Estelle Scher in New York City in 1923, Getty wanted to be an entertainer from an early age, despite her small size and the initial objections of her Polish immigrant parents.

She got her start as a comic at resorts in New York state's Catskill mountains and pursued her dream as an actress in regional theater and off-Broadway productions while raising two sons and working office jobs to make ends meet.

She won a breakthrough role in a production of "Torch Song Trilogy" that brought her to the attention of Hollywood. She was ultimately cast as the oldest of four female retirees living together on "Golden Girls" even though she was slightly younger than her screen daughter.

Getty won two Emmys for her role as Sophia Petrillo on the show.

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'Golden Girls' Actress Estelle Getty

by Bob Thomas

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Actress Estelle Getty . . . The Actress and her alter ego, Sophia Petrillo

LOS ANGELES, California -- Estelle Getty, the diminutive actress who spent 40 years struggling for success before landing a role of a lifetime in 1985 as the sarcastic octogenarian Sophia on TV's "The Golden Girls," died Tuesday, July 22. Getty died at about 5:30 a.m. at her Hollywood Boulevard home, said her son, Carl Gettleman of Santa Monica. She was 84.

The beloved TV actress, who provided spice to "The Golden Girls" as crotchety matriarch Sophia, died after years of suffering from advanced dementia. She was only three days shy of her birthday.

"Estelle always wanted to be an actress, and she achieved that goal beyond her dreams," former "Golden Girls" co-star Rue McClanahan told The Associated Press. "Don't feel sad about her passing. She will always be with us in her crowning achievement, Sophia."

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'The Golden Girls' featured four actresses (L-R) Estelle Getty, Bea

Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White

"The Golden Girls," featuring four female retirees sharing a house in Miami, grew out of NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff's belief that television was ignoring its older viewers. Three of its stars had already appeared in previous series: Bea Arthur in "Maude," Betty White in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and McClanahan in "Mama's Family."

The last character to be cast was Sophia Petrillo, the feisty 80-something mother of Arthur's character. "Our mother-daughter relationship was one of the greatest comic duos ever, and I will miss her," Arthur said in a statement.

When she auditioned, Getty was appearing on stage in Hollywood as the carping Jewish mother in Harvey Fierstein's play "Torch Song Trilogy." In her early 60s, she flunked her "Golden Girls" test twice because it was believed she didn't look old enough to play 80. "I could understand that," she told an interviewer a year after the show debuted. "I walk fast, I move fast, I talk fast."

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Fisher Stevens as David appeared Off-Broadway with Estelle Getty

as Mrs. Beckoff in Harvey Fierstein's 'Torch Song Trilogy' at the

Little Theatre on June 10, 1982

She came prepared for the third audition, however, wearing dowdy clothes and telling an NBC makeup artist, "To you this is just a job. To me it's my entire career down the toilet unless you make me look 80." The artist did, Getty got the job and won two Emmys.

"The only comfort at this moment is that although Estelle has moved on, Sophia will always be with us," White said in an e-mail. "The Golden Girls" culminated a long struggle for success during which Getty worked low-paying office jobs to help support her family while she tried to make it as a stage actress.

"I knew I could be seduced by success in another field, so I'd say, 'Don't promote me, please,'" she recalled. She also appeared in small parts in a handful of films and TV movies during that time, including "Tootsie," ''Deadly Force" and "Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story."

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Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty on the

poster for 'Stop or My Mom Will Shoot'

After her success in "The Golden Girls," other roles came her way. She played Cher's mother in "Mask," Sylvester Stallone's in "Stop or My Mom Will Shoot" and Barry Manilow's in the TV film, "Copacabana." Other credits included "Mannequin" and "Stuart Little," as the voice of Grandma Estelle.

"The Golden Girls," which ran from 1985 to 1992, was an immediate hit, and Sophia, who began as a minor character, soon evolved into a major one. Audiences particularly loved the verbal zingers Getty would hurl at the other three. When McClanahan's libidinous character, Blanche, once complained that her life was an open book, Sophia shot back, "Your life's an open blouse."

"I always told her she should be a standup comic. She was so funny in person," McClanahan recalled. "She would always say, 'Why couldn't we make these characters Jewish? Why am I Sicilian?'"

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In 1988, Estelle Getty won the Emmy for Outstanding

Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role

as Sophia Petrillo in 'The Golden Girls'

Getty was born Estelle Scher on July 25, 1923, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, the daughter of Polish immigrants. Getty fell in love with the stage as a small 4-year-old child when her father took her to see a movie and five acts of vaudeville. "I was stunned. I had found my world," she wrote in "If I Knew Then What I Know Now So What?," her 1988 memoir written with Steve Delsohn.

By age 5, she was studying singing, dancing and dramatics at a settlement house. She graduated from Seward Park High School and gained acting experience as well as a knack for one-liners in her late teens when she did standup comedy in the Borscht Belt in the Catskills in upstate New York.

Female comedians were rare in those days, however, and she bombed. Undeterred, she continued to pursue a career in entertainment, and while her parents were encouraging, her father also insisted that she learn office skills so she would have something to fall back on.

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Actress Estelle Getty relaxing at home

She married New York businessman Arthur Gettleman (the source of her stage name) in 1947, and they had two sons, Carl and Barry. The marriage prevailed despite her long absences on the road and in "The Golden Girls." After her marriage in 1946, she worked as a secretary and continued acting, eventually moving into motherly roles.

Getty had lived in the Los Angeles area since her "Golden Girls" days. Getty was evasive about her height, acknowledging only that she was "under 5 feet and under 100 pounds." McClanahan said her nickname for Getty was "Slats because she was so short, itty-bitty."

Getty is survived by her two sons, Barry Gettleman and Carl Gettleman of Miami, Florida; a brother, David Scher of London, England and a sister, Rosilyn Howard of Las Vegas, Nevada. Her husband of 57 years, businessman Arthur Gettleman, died in 2004.

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I am truly sadden to hear this news... I loved her as an actress, not just on the Golden Girls, but other things as well... She also had a part in one of my favorite movies Mannequin... Know you will be missed Estelle...

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Picture it, the time was 1923 when a polish girl was born of....

I can hear her going off in my head with one of her dramatic Sophie stories.

She was a brilliant actress. Incredibly funny! I'm thankful for the laugher her talents brought into my childhood when it wasn't always full of laughter. To me that cast was one of the best ever. I hope all those who knew and loved her find comfort at this time.

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