As Sophia Petrillo, Bea Arthur’s charmingly cantankerous 80-year-old mother on NBC’s Golden Girls, Estelle Getty is queen of the pungent put-down. (“I think there’s a connection between your brain and wallpaper paste,” she once snapped to her housemate Rose.) She’s the kind of mother who’ll not only tell you your boyfriend is a swine, she’ll tell him as well. Regularly.
The only thing quicker than Sophia’s wit is Getty’s amazingly successful transition from stage—she starred on Broadway in Torch Song Trilogy—to TV. She recently won a Golden Globe award for best actress in a comedy (shared with Cybill Shepherd) and had her TV career validated with an appearance on The Tonight Show with Joan Rivers. None of that compares with the stunned reaction she receives when people meet her and tell her how great she looks for her age. The thing is, they think she’s a shriveled 80 when in fact she’s a frisky, funky 62. No matter. She still looks good for her age.
“Somewhere under five feet” and “somewhere under 90 pounds,” Getty could be mistaken for Dr. Ruth’s purse. She settles into the couch of her tastefully transient two-bedroom Hollywood apartment and sighs. Her hair is neatly coiffed, her clothes are hip, and her manner is a shade shy of uptight.
If she’s funny and cranky on Girls, she’s only cranky in person. She’s hypersensitive about what people are saying about her and wants to clear the air. No, she’s not jealous because her co-stars get more attention. No, she doesn’t think of herself as a scene stealer. And no, she doesn’t think she’s a rotten wife because her husband of 38 years, Arthur Gettleman, 62, still lives in New York while tending to his retail glass business. They see each other during the show’s four-month hiatus and pay a monthly telephone bill “bigger than the national debt.” “I get defensive because I get asked the same thing all the time. What does he do while I’m away? Well, there are men in business who go off for months all over the world and nobody asks their wives what they did while their husbands were away,” she says testily.
Nobody would ask except for one small kink: She shares her apartment with actor J. David Krassner, who appeared with her in the touring company of Torch Song. The arrangement smacks more of Jewish mother than red-hot mama. “When you’re as short as I am, it’s nice to have someone reach things,” she cracks. But she never confuses her TV persona with reality. “It’s not a mother-child relationship. I don’t need any more children.” Harvey Fierstein, who wrote Torch Song and played her son in it, doesn’t believe it. “What does she mean she doesn’t want to be anyone’s mother?” rasps Fierstein. “I forgot to send her a Mother’s Day card once and she didn’t speak to me for three weeks.”
The arrangement doesn’t seem to bother hubby Arthur, who married her, he says, because “I found her witty, charming, perfectly informed, smart and shorter than me. [He’s 5’2″.] Sometimes I miss her greatly and sometimes I don’t. But I’m glad that she is living with someone and not alone.”
For a woman who has made a career out of playing mothers—she was Cher’s in Mask and Barry Manilow’s in last year’s TV movie Copacabana—she has surprisingly few good things to say about motherhood. (She has two grown sons, Barry, 36, and Carl, 33.) “No, I wouldn’t claim I enjoyed it,” she says. “It was the days of Dr. Spock and everything was so regimented. You stayed home and never left. Fear kept me from enjoying my children.” She pauses. “It was such a chore being a mother in those days. Terrible. Awful. No fun at all.”
Yet she could be ferociously good at it. Remembers son Carl, who now works with his dad. “In 1968 I was a student at Columbia during the demonstrations. One day we took over the dean’s office and after a while the phone rang. It was my mother! To this day I don’t know how she knew where I was or how she got through. When I got on the phone she wanted me to think about the ramifications that this might have on my career.”
Perseverance has always been her mantra. The daughter of Polish immigrants, she grew up Estelle Scher on New York’s Lower East Side. From the time she was 5, she says, “I wanted to be Claudette Colbert.” Her father, who at that time ran the glass company that Arthur now oversees, could barely support the family but scrounged up the 25 cents a week she needed for acting lessons. When she was 18 she tried working as a stand-up comic in between waitressing shifts in the Cats-kills but failed miserably. Audiences were aghast at a woman comedian and she bombed. Her parents encouraged her to trade in her stand-up job for a sit-down one, and she found work as a secretary. “I would think of myself as an actress who worked in an office, but actually I was a secretary who worked in the theater,” she says.
She took six years to raise her sons before returning to work on off-off Broadway. There she might have languished had friends not taken her to Fierstein’s off-Broadway drama called Widows and Children. Afterward she went backstage and told him, “You’re incredibly talented—why don’t you write yourself a mother and I’ll play her?” Within a year, Torch Song opened on Broadway with Fierstein and Getty. Estelle played the role for about five years. “I love everything about her except her broiled chicken,” gushes Fierstein.
After Torch Song she kicked around Hollywood doing guest spots on shows like Cagney and Lacey and Fantasy Island. When she auditioned last year for Golden Girls, the producers thought she was too young for the part. Only after her fourth audition, when she arrived dressed as Sophia, did she win the role. “She’s not fully aware of what makes her special, which is what makes her special,” says one of the show’s directors, Terry Hughes. Producers of the upcoming comedy Mannequin, with Andrew (Pretty in Pink) McCarthy, think she’s special too. She starts work on that movie next week.
Getty, a natural worrier, has always been the sort of person who can find the cloud in every silver lining. “People who make it to the top when they’re young have to worry about staying there,” she says. “The nice thing about making it at this stage is that I don’t have to worry about staying up here that long.” Sophia would be proud.