Friday, August 1, 2008

Estelle Getty: In the Words of Her Friends

s I found out in researching The Q Guide to The Golden Girls, Estelle Getty was universally beloved on that sitcom's set. And so, I thought it would be fitting to comb through my files and put together a tribute from her former friends, co-workers and peers; here, in their own words, are some memories of Estelle, from those who knew and loved her best.

Estelle used to tell a story about the 1970s, when I had a theater production office in the old Victoria Theater building in New York, and she was a secretary on Long Island. I used to have all these open casting calls, and Estelle would come to every one of them, on her lunch hour. She sure did pound the pavement, being a very determined lady. It wasn’t that she didn’t work, but she wasn’t in the big time until Harvey Fierstein came up with that character for her in Torch Song Trilogy which both broke your heart and made you laugh your ass off. And I couldn’t have been happier for Estelle. I’m so glad that she found her glory in her own time.

- John Bowab, a TV director (though not of The Golden Girls) and friend of Estelle’s

[When The Golden Girls was casting], we had quite a few shows on the air, and were covering many responsibilities. So one day, I was handling casting because Paul [Witt] and [Golden Girls creator] Susan [Harris] were busy. Estelle walked through the door, and it was frightening. You don’t expect to hear the dialogue jump off the page that way, but I realized oh my God, this is everything we wanted. Obviously I wanted Estelle in for a callback, but when she was due to come in, I couldn’t be there. I told Jay Sandrich, Paul and Susan, “If you don’t like her, have her do it again. Trust me – don’t let her out of the room until you’re satisfied, because she’s the one!”

- Tony Thomas, producer

On The Golden Girls, we had an amazing casting director who’s no longer with us, Judith Weiner. And the very first person she brought in for the show was Estelle, who was playing Harvey Fierstein’s mother in Torch Song Trilogy here in L.A. And of course she was way too young for the part of Sophia Petrillo. But when we saw her, we knew we could put a wig on her, and she was just great. Judith insisted that we couldn’t just pick the first person we saw, and so we did see other women for that part, but [all along] we knew. It was Estelle’s first sitcom, but she knew just what to do, and I didn’t have to give her any more direction than the others. As a stage actor, she knew just how to get a laugh.

- Jay Sandrich, director of The Golden Girls pilot

I’m 5 foot 9 and a half inches in my stocking feet. And [we were just meeting each other for the first time when] this sweet little thing walked in. It ended up being that Estelle and I formed one of, I think, the great comic duos of all time. It was such an amazing mother/daughter relationship, with love and hate. It was one of those lucky things, a combination of brilliant writing, brilliant acting and brilliant direction.

- Bea Arthur, co-star

[When we started The Golden Girls], Estelle was the new kid on the block. And of course we all fell in love with her immediately. She was so perfect for Sophia. [As she became ill in later years], she missed so much, and it’s such a shame. Even in the beginning, she missed getting a lot of the attention because she was in her old lady makeup. So the other three of us would all get people coming up and saying, “I love your show!”, but they’d see Estelle and wouldn’t know that that was Sophia. But of course, the minute she opened her mouth they would.

- Betty White, co-star

[Although Estelle had auditioned from the beginning], Estelle and I were the last two added to the cast. And she was absolutely hilarious. We gravitated toward one another because we were the two lesser knowns. At first, she was very insecure, and was certain she was going to be fired. She said, “If it’s between you and me, Chuck, you’re obviously staying. I’m gone.” I didn’t have these worries, because rehearsals were going so well.

When we taped the pilot for The Golden Girls, all the other women, who are of course such pros, got their laughs. Especially Bea, because they played to her strength in doing her “slow burn,” a look that takes four or five seconds of silence and just builds in laughter. They were all on the money. But then when Estelle would come on, the audience wouldn’t know what to make of such a character, and so they fell in love with her. She’d open her mouth and bring down the house. She ended up sandbagging everybody. With absolutely perfect comic timing, the woman couldn’t miss, and everybody saw it. They weren’t saying, “Did you see what Estelle did,” but rather, “Oh my God, Estelle is stealing this show out from under three real comic pros.”

- Charles Levin, who played gay houseboy Coco in The Golden Girls pilot before his character was eliminated

When The Golden Girls first started, I complained that there were quite a few publicity photos that Estelle wasn’t in. And at first, I was told in no uncertain terms that Estelle was not a Golden Girl -- Estelle was a mother of a Golden Girl. Well, a couple of months later, the audience decided differently.

In the first year or two of the show, if you went to the studio, you would see Betty’s and Bea’s Mercedes, and I think Rue [had a fancy car]– and Estelle’s Toyota. She never thought of herself as a big star. Her friends would always tell her to get a new car, and finally she did. She rented an apartment in Hollywood for years and years, and still kept her place back home in Queens. She never became part of Hollywood in “that way,” which was adorable. She would say that because her success had come late in life, if it should all go away, she’d be fine. She was incredibly healthy, in not being swept up in it all. She always remained true to who she was – including her love of bargain shopping.

On many occasions, like when the Golden Girls got to meet the Queen [at a Command Performance], she was really somewhat in awe, because she always did think of herself as this girl from the Lower East Side – that feeling never left her. And she’d always say that she had the most wonderful job in the world, because whenever people saw her, all they wanted to do was come up and hug her. And how many people get to go through life like that?

- Juliet Green, Estelle's former manager

I did not know Estelle prior to appearing on The Golden Girls, but when I met her, I just instantly loved her. She was the cutest lady, and was really funny. She always pretended she couldn’t do something, and then Bea Arthur would say behind her back, “She can do that. You know she can do that.” She was a gutsy little lady.

- Betty Garrett, guest star

When you walk on to any set where people have been together for a long time, they all already have a certain closeness, and it can be intimidating. But I knew Estelle already from New York, and she welcomed me warmly. We would huddle a lot together off in the corner and joke, and worry about our lines. We called it “a panic in the corner.”

- Dena Dietrich, guest star (as Sophia's daughter Gloria)

Estelle was the first one of the Girls [my former writing partner] Jamie Wooten and I talked to. When I introduced her to Jamie, she said, “You’re well known for something?” And I said, “No, I think you are thinking of James Wooten who is a correspondent for ABC news.” She got this embarrassed look on her face. I realized she was just a sweet, grandmotherly lady, and I just fell in love with her. She was the first one I became close to.

The thing that was brilliant about Estelle was her sense with one-liners. When the audience knows the character is going to say something funny, you try to get through the entire punch line before they start clapping. Well Estelle would motor through those jokes. She would spit them out, and it was brilliant. You could teach a lesson in comedy diction with how Estelle would approach those one-liners. To this day, I think that, more than any of the other women, her one-liner delivery was magnificent.

- Marc Cherry, writer and later creator of Desperate Housewives

Estelle used to talk pretty openly about how she was paralyzed with stage fright. It was horrible for her. What should have been the most joyful experience for her could sometimes instead be just crippling. Of course, even when she was out of her body with fear and didn’t seem to know what she was saying, she would nail the joke. It was the weirdest, chemical thing.

In one episode, Julio Iglesias was making an appearance, where he was supposed to come in at the tag and serenade Sophia. But when he arrived he said he didn’t want to sing. I was concerned that [producers] Paul [Witt] and Tony [Thomas] would be upset because we hired Julio and he didn’t want to sing. But Estelle bailed me out. She said, “Honey, I’ll take care of it.” She was so compassionate for someone feeling apprehensive about doing something that she was able to take care of him in that moment. She took his arm, and instead sang to him – and that’s the way you see it in the episode.

- Nina Wass, producer

Estelle was just funny, Jewish New York funny. She kept saying jokingly, “Can’t we make these characters Jewish?” She would have felt so much more comfortable than trying to be Italian, although clearly it worked! I kept in touch with Estelle for as long as she could stay in touch, as long as she knew who I was. I got a huge kick out of her always. Estelle had been an off-off-off-off-Broadway girl while she was raising a family, and she told very funny stories about New York.

- Rue McClanahan, co-star

If you are an actress in this business you learn to appreciate the gay guys. [As a gay male writing team], we didn’t lie, we just didn’t bring up that aspect of our lives. But Estelle recognized us immediately. She came up to us and asked, “Are you guys gay?” We said, “How did you know?!” She told us, “You are coming out to dinner, you are going to have fun with me, and I will introduce you to a lot of people.” And so we became very close. She was such a sweetheart, and we admired her because from early on she was an AIDS fundraiser.

- Stan Zimmerman and James Berg, writers and creators of Lifetime's upcoming sitcom Rita Rocks

Estelle was an incredibly funny lady. And the best thing was, she taught me to make great matzoh ball, and I so now I make great matzoh ball soup to this day. She said, “You don’t pack it like a snowball -- you just very loosely drop it in.” And boy, it just makes them nice and fluffy. It’s advice for which I’m eternally grateful, as are my children.

- Cheech Marin, co-star on sequel series Golden Palace

1 comment:

  1. What a nice tribute. Great work Jim! Bonnie