By Mark Dagostino
August 11, 2008 12:00 PM

During her six decades as an actress, Estelle Getty made a career out of playing feisty moms. To Harvey Fierstein on Broadway in Torch Song Trilogy. To Cher on the big screen in Mask. And most memorably to Bea Arthur—who was only three years her junior—as wisecracking Sophia Petrillo on TV’s The Golden Girls. But in real life? “I wouldn’t claim I enjoyed it,” Getty quipped to PEOPLE back in 1986 about raising her own two sons. “It was the days of Dr. Spock. It was such a chore being a mother in those days. Terrible. Awful. No fun at all!”

Her sons thought more highly of the job she did—both on and off-screen. “She was a whirlwind as a young mother, working, auditioning, shopping, cleaning,” says her son Barry Gettleman, 55. “[And] my mother was a brilliant actress.” Getty died on July 22, three days before her 85th birthday, after years of suffering from Lewy body dementia, a degenerative brain disorder that shares the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Adds her elder son, Carl, 58: “She was in a hospital bed, [but] you could still crack her up. She liked to laugh—even at her own expense.”

Getty did plenty to make others smile as Sophia, whose sharp wit was a highlight of The Golden Girls during its 1985-1992 run. The show continues to appear in millions of homes every day in reruns, and after her death Getty was mourned by countless fans, some of whom posted Sophia-themed tributes on YouTube. Says fellow Golden Girl Betty White: “Estelle has moved on, Sophia will always be with us.”

Born Estelle Scher on New York City’s Lower East Side, the daughter of Polish immigrants dreamed of becoming an actress from the age of 5. She got her start—and developed a gift for one-liners—performing stand-up in the Catskills. In 1947 she married retail-glass businessman Arthur Gettleman, whose last name she shortened into her stage name. (Gettleman stayed back East while his wife found Hollywood fame; he died in 2004.) Having worked as a secretary while raising her sons, Getty got her big break in 1982, when Fierstein cast her as a caustic Jewish mother in Torch Song Trilogy, where she later caught the attention of Golden Girls‘ producers. “I met her and I just said, ‘I’ve got her!'” says Golden Girls creator Susan Harris. The fact that she was a Jewish woman playing a Sicilian made no difference. “She was a New York mother,” Harris says. “She had those rhythms. What made her so lovable was she could say anything.”

Although she won an Emmy for playing an octogenarian, Getty was only in her 60s during her Golden run (she was aged by a gray wig and lots of makeup). But she was never vain about her age. Even as her health declined later in life, Getty loved celebrating her birthdays. “The 75th was a huge production,” recalls her longtime personal assistant Paul Chapedelaine. “She had a band, dancing, beautiful catering, tons of celebrities.” But there were no such plans for the 85th. “She just wasn’t going to be up to it,” he says. “We knew that.”

After her diagnosis, Getty seldom saw her Golden Girls castmates but drew strength from a tight circle of close friends. “She always surrounded herself with young, good-looking gay guys,” says costar Rue McClanahan with a laugh. In 2002, the two Golden Girls met for brunch. “She was herself,” recalls McClanahan. “Making jokes and quips and dry remarks. I like to remember her [that way].”

That sense of humor buoyed those around her. Towards the end of her life, Getty employed a religious but not exactly meticulous housekeeper who regularly prayed over her ailing boss. As Chapedelaine recalls, “I asked Estelle, ‘When she puts her hands on you and prays, do you feel anything?’ And she said, “I feel a little dusty.’ There it was, that classic Sophia humor.”