HOLLYWOOD - Estelle Getty, the diminutive actress who spent 40 years struggling for success before landing the role of a lifetime in 1985 as the sarcastic octogenarian Sophia on TV's "The Golden Girls," has died. She was 84.
Getty, who suffered from advanced dementia, died at about 5:30 a.m. Tuesday at her Hollywood Boulevard home, said her son, Carl Gettleman of Santa Monica.
"She was loved throughout the world in six continents, and if they loved sitcoms in Antarctica she would have been loved on seven continents," her son said. "She was one of the most talented comedic actresses who ever lived."
"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 Rue McClanahan in "Mama's Family." The last character to be cast was Sophia Petrillo, the feisty 80-something mother of Arthur's character.
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."
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. It 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."
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.