Rue McClanahan: Celebrating a Golden Girl
A BRIGHT STAR
Rue McClanahan was born a small-town girl in 1934, to a beautician and a contractor in Healdton, Okla., but she had big city dreams. The University of Tulsa theater major would eventually set off for New York, getting her start Off-Broadway in a stage and screen career that would last more than 50 years. She died June 3 at 76, after suffering a massive stroke.
THE MOUTH OF THE SOUTH
McClanahan landed her iconic role in 1985, at age 51, as lusty Southern belle Blanche Deveraux on Golden Girls. Alongside Betty White, Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty, she helped turn NBC's Saturday night sitcom about four seniors in Miami into a hit. "I heard Betty White say this so many times: 'Four old broads are so non-threatening.' We could do and say a lot of things that shows with younger actors couldn't," she later said about the show, which addressed addiction, menopause, homosexuality and other taboo topics.
CLASS OF '52
Ardmore (Okla.) High School had a certain overachiever in that year's senior class: Eddi Rue McClanahan. The budding actress not only appeared in the school play, No Moon Tonight, but also was a member of the pep club, Latin club, student council, National Honor Society, yearbook staff, chorus and the debate club (then called "oratorical contest").
I DO, AGAIN
McClanahan was married six times during her life, including to Gus Fisher in 1976 (pictured at their wedding with her Maude costars, Bea Arthur and Conrad Bain). "Oh, God – six husbands," McClanahan later lamented to Entertainment Weekly. She's survived by her last husband, actor Morrow Wilson, and a son, Mark, from her first marriage.
She landed her first Broadway role in 1968 alongside a young Dustin Hoffman in the short-lived musical Jimmy Shine, about a struggling artist fumbling through his relationships with women. "It was right after The Graduate. And about half of the country's teenage girls were enthralled with Dustin," she later told Broadway.com. "There'd be, what always seemed like, hundreds of 15-year-olds out by the stage door every performance."
A MAGNIFICENT DITZ
A FAMILY AFFAIR
A brilliant character actress, McClanahan also played spinster Fran, the older sister of Thelma-Mae (Vicki Lawrence) in Mama's Family for a year, starting in 1983. Also on the series: Future Golden Girls costar Betty White, as snooty Ellen.
All four Golden Girls stars won Emmys for their work – and McClanahan took home her statue in 1987. Originally, she was considered for the role of Rose, which went to Betty White. "I said, 'Oh no, that would be agony, not to be able to play Blanche,'" she later said.
Whether sashaying home with one of her many suitors, or playing a feather-suited Goosey Loosey for Rose's school production of Henny Penny, McClanahan's Blanche was always the center of attention. "It was absolutely such a – you should pardon the pun – golden stretch of time, those seven years," she later told News 8 Austin. "So amazingly creative."
A WICKED TURN
After battling – and beating – breast cancer in 1997, the actress returned to Broadway in 2001's The Women, and later took on the role of Wicked's Madame Morrible in 2005. "I'm having fun – not as much fun as a real play would be, you know, with a challenging role – but for a musical, it's pretty spectacular," she told Broadway.com.
In her final series, McClanahan played the matriarch to a trashy Texas family in Logo's dark comedy Sordid Lives. "I have several steamy sex scenes," she dished to the Gay amp Lesbian Times. "They're wild and raucous. I suppose Blanche would probably approve."
While happily married to sixth husband Morrow Wilson, McClanahan penned an autobiography about her storied love life, My First Five Husbands... And the Ones Who Got Away. "The whole point is to help other 20-year-olds not get into the same mess that I got into," she told EW. "When it comes to human relationships, my advice is to operate out of love. And I mean, not romantic love. But the bigger love. The real love. Operate from there."