By Jane Hall
Updated January 06, 1986 12:00 PM

When the Golden Girls get together, it’s hardly a scene from Little Women. The premise of NBC’s smash Saturday-night success certainly sounds harmless enough: Three over-50 women share a spiffy house in manshy Miami. Their flesh is willing, but their prospects are pitiful. So much for the concept. Now consider the characters. Rue McClanahan’s libidinous Southern belle, Blanche, takes a class in mouth-to-mouth resuscitation because she likes the companionship. Betty White’s gentle, if slightly dizzy, Rose is hesitant to date out of loyalty to her late husband. And Bea Arthur’s acerbic Dorothy is still steamed at her ex-husband who dumped her for a young stewardess on a flight to Hawaii. (“She got confused when they said, ‘Give the man a lei.’ “)

To be sure it’s bawdy stuff for television. But don’t tell that to the Girls. At ages when most actresses find themselves recycled onto Love Boat cruises, Arthur, 61, White, 63, and McClanahan, 51, have become the Charlie’s Angels of a graying America. “We’re having so much fun it’s illegal,” exults White. “It’s nice to know you don’t self-destruct after 40.”

That of course is the point of Golden Girls. Since its debut last September, the brash sitcom has titillated viewers with its radical notion (for youth-crazed TV anyway) that older women should be treated like fine wines, not throwaway razors. Golden Girls has become the only new show of the season to hit the Top 10 target consistently, and even hard-boiled critics have been swept away by the geriatric sexual innuendos. “Incorrigibly funny,” raved Tom Shales in the Washington Post, adding, “The show has a delicious case of bad manners.” PEOPLE’S Jeff Jarvis hailed it as “the glorious best of the new season.” A few reviewers complained that the show is dehumanizing and filled with too many scatalogical one-liners.

But the true test came when Arthur and White turned up last fall on that unimpeachable barometer of the female psyche, Donahue. One adoring caller gushingly thanked the pair for making her “feel 52 and gorgeous.”

Golden Girls was the invention of NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff, who began noticing changing demographics in the United States. (Approximately 30 percent of Americans are over 45.) The idea ended up with Soap creator Susan Harris, 44, who loved the idea for personal reasons. Her grandmother, who died in 1983 at 93, had lived independently in an apartment until her death and at 89 had even landed a job—helping to care for the elderly. “It’s a spirit, a way of looking at life,” says Harris. Even when you’re older, “you always feel like you’re in your 20s.”

Harris wanted Arthur, White and McClanahan. Arthur and McClanahan had been a strong duo on Maude in the ’70s. White and McClanahan had worked together in 1983 on the short-lived Mama’s Family. “They’re the actresses you think of when you want three great ladies,” says Harris. Veteran stage actress Estelle (Torch Song Trilogy) Getty, 62, was a bonus as Arthur’s outrageous 80-year-old mother, Sophia. “As soon as we heard her, we had to have her,” says Harris.

Among the Girls there’s nary a speck of jealousy. Observes Arthur: “There are no egos involved because we’re four strong professionals. There’s no waif to be carried. It’s a joy going to work every day.” All of this was confirmed on a recent visit to the chintz-covered Los Angeles set where the show is taped. As the cast rehearses a bowling alley scene, the mood is semi-fluff. McClanahan is playfully modeling her tacky pink and black bowling outfit, and White is practicing jumping up and down for the moment her character wins the match. Arthur, on the other hand, seems perplexed by her stage directions. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” she informs director Jim Drake after she rolls a ball down the alley. That’s all White—who hides her sarcastic humor behind her froufrou facade—needs to hear: “You don’t know what you’re doing here,” she says in mock horror. “I’m making a horse’s ass of myself in front of America!”

Underneath their playful veneer, however, the real-life Golden Girls can relate, all too painfully at times, to the show’s underlying theme: women alone. Arthur has been divorced for several years from veteran director Gene (Brighton Beach Memoirs) Saks. White, like Rose, is a widow who sorely misses her beloved spouse, Password host Allen Ludden, who died of cancer in 1981. And Rue, married five times, is currently separated from No. 5.

Padding barefoot around her spacious adobe-style Brentwood home, wearing a white shirt and pants, Bea Arthur seems the antithesis of strong-willed, Emmy-winning Maude and even tart-tongued Dorothy. “I’m always cast as an imposing woman,” she says, “but I’m very shy unless I’m onstage and omnipotent. I hate to do talk shows because I don’t know what to say as myself.” Observes Getty of her TV daughter: “Bea is a real tower of Jell-O.”

And a thinner tower at that. Viewers were pleasantly surprised to see a svelte new Arthur. “I was always heavy, but after Maude ended I gained 10 pounds on a family vacation in France,” explains Arthur. “When I looked at myself in the mirror at home, I decided to do something.” On the advice of her doctor, she took off 28 pounds and has kept them off. “I feel 30 years younger,” she says now. Her new shapeliness hasn’t hurt her social life, and in the last few months she has started dating again. “He’s not in the business, and we’re only going to a few parties,” she says cautiously through a blush.

Unlike her alter ego on the show, Arthur says she harbors no resentment toward her ex-husband. (They have adopted sons, Matthew, 24, and Daniel, 21.) “Of course I went through a difficult period, but I’m happy now,” she says. The success of Maude, created by her pal Norman Lear, was a catalyst in the breakup of her marriage. “As successful as Gene was, suddenly I had a different kind of recognizability,” she recalls. “In 1973 when we went to see a Broadway show, we had to run down the street to get away from hordes of Maude fans.”

Arthur was born in New York and grew up in Cambridge, Md., where her parents owned a department store. She failed miserably as a torch songstress (“Audiences laughed when I sang about throwing myself in the river because my man got away”) and so she quickly decided that she was better suited for comedy. She played in sketches in Pocono resorts before landing a role in the 1954 off-Broadway production of Threepenny Opera and in 1966 won a Tony as Vera Charles, Angela Lansbury’s caustic bosom buddy in Mame.

For those who wonder what has taken so long for her to return to prime time, Arthur has a simple explanation: “I wanted to wait for a series that was as good as Maude, but everybody kept sending me scripts where I played a policeman’s mother.” In 1983 she starred in Amanda’s, which ran only 10 episodes. “I was glad it wasn’t in a better time period,” she says, unable—or unwilling—to hide her disdain for the show, “because more people would have seen it.”

When the Girls’ house was robbed in a recent episode, Betty White says that her character, Rose, “talked to her late husband, saying, ‘Charlie, how could you leave me alone?’ I had to bite my tongue not to say Allen instead of Charlie.” The couple met on Passwords 1961. She had been married briefly and divorced years earlier; Ludden, a widower, immediately asked her to marry him. A year later he prevailed. “For Easter he sent me a stuffed-toy bunny with a pair of ruby-and-sapphire earrings and a note that read, ‘Will you?’ The bunny did it.”

The daughter of an electrical engineer and a homemaker, White was born in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and raised in Southern California. She yearned to be a movie queen but instead found work as a radio talk-show host. But with her heart-shaped face, bright blue eyes and cheery enthusiasm, White was encouraged to pursue TV. She starred in some of television’s earliest sitcoms, including Life With Elizabeth in 1953 and A Date With the Angels in 1957.

After several relatively anonymous years in TV (she was a frequent game-show guest), she learned that producers of The Mary Tyler Moore show were looking for a “Betty White type” to play an insincere, sex-starved TV hostess. One of the producers had a novel suggestion: Why not try Betty White? Good going, guys. During MTM’s seven-year run she won two Emmys as Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker, and became something of a cult figure in TV office lore. Later The Betty White Show aired for one season, and in early 1983 she hosted a silly daytime game show called Just Men! that lasted a mere four months.

These days White lives in a flower-filled, three-bedroom rustic home in Brentwood with two dogs and a cat for companions. (She’s a devout animal lover and active in several pet charities.) An optimist, she identifies with her character: “Rose thinks of life as a musical comedy. She knows it’s going to have a happy ending.”

What is White’s happy ending? Since she confessed to Joan Rivers on The Tonight Show that she harbored a secret crush, many people have linked her to Ed Flanders, St. Elsewhere’s mild-mannered Dr. Donald Westphall. She insists the only man in her life is author Rudy (Inside Warner Brothers) Behlmer, 59, a longtime friend whom she has dated for more than a year. “He’s the original movie buff, and we go to a lot of films together.” She doubts that she’ll marry again, however. “Allen’s a tough act to follow.” “I’m not a vamp—I grow tomatoes and make quilts,” declares Rue McClanahan, who, as the show’s merry widow, made a date at her husband’s funeral. The Oklahoma-born actress, who has an expressive face as open as the prairie, has gained new confidence from her TV role. “I’m feeling prettier since I started playing Blanche. She’s convinced she’s gorgeous.”

Rue, the daughter of a builder, was born in Healdton, Okla. She recognized her calling as a 4-year-old in The Three Little Kittens—”character work even then.” After graduating with honors from the University of Tulsa in 1957, she moved to New York. There she built a solid reputation as a serious stage actress, with major parts in MacBird and Sticks and Bones before being tapped for Maude in 1973.

In her heart, McClanahan says, she’s an old-fashioned woman, which may explain her many marriages. “Other people date and even live together without getting married. I got married instead of dating.” (She has one son, Mark, a musician in his 20s.) Beyond that she won’t discuss her marriages, except to say, “I realize that I needed to learn how to live alone.”

Despite the liberating message of Golden Girls, the reality of aging can be far more stinging than the show’s humor. This fall, while viewers were chuckling over the hilarious oncamera mother-daughter relationship between Arthur and Estelle Getty, Arthur and White were privately taking care of their own invalid mothers. Between takes on the set, each would rush to a nearby telephone to check in with her mother’s nurse. Arthur’s 85-year-old mother died in October; White’s 86-year-old mother died a month later. For a few poignant moments, life could not be separated from art. In one scene Getty instinctively patted Bea’s hand as she said her lines. A look of unmistakable compassion came over Arthur’s face, and her eyes shone with tears. “Estelle’s not at all like my own mother,” Arthur allowed, “but every time she speaks, I start weeping.”

In the last months of her mother’s life, White gave her painkilling shots. It was one of those times when parent and child reverse roles.

“I hated it that she was in so much pain,” says White. But through it all, mother, like daughter, managed to maintain her own sense of humor. What did her mother think of Golden Girls? Remembers Betty White with a grin: “She said, ‘You four old broads are terrific’ ”