“Betty, White Hot!” a series of periodic flashbacks to key moments in Betty White’s amazing television career, continues.
On September 14, 1985, NBC introduced “The Golden Girls,” the Saturday sitcom that gave Betty White her most famous role: lovably daft Rose Nylund.
It’s almost impossible to imagine White playing any other character on the show, but producers originally cast her as oversexed Southern belle Blanche Devereaux – then decided the character was too similar to Sue Ann Nivens, White’s man-hungry “Mary Tyler Moore Show” persona.
Similarly, the original choice to portray Rose – Rue McClanahan – had previously played dimwitted Aunt Fran on “Mama’s Family.”
So before the pilot was filmed, “The Golden Girls” producers switched the actresses and their roles, casting White as Rose and McClanahan as Blanche – a decision that left White uncertain how to bring her new character to life.
Sitcom impresario Jay Sandrich, who directed “The Golden Girls’” pilot, gave White the “definitive clue to Rose Nylund,” as she recalled in her 1995 memoir, “Here We Go Again: My Life in Television:”
“She is not dumb – just totally naïve,” he said. “She believes everything she is told and in her innocence, always takes the first meaning of every word.”
What a great measuring stick to give an actress. It not only helped me find Rose, but love her and keep her on course through the next few years. She didn’t understand sarcasm, so the others could say terrible things, but the words all sounded fine to her. She was so literal in her thinking that if someone said they could eat a horse, she would call the S.P.C.A. But Rose was not weak. She had her own set of rules that made perfect sense, if only to her; and she also had a fierce Nordic temper on occasion.
Rue, on the other hand, took Blanche and ran with her – farther than I would ever have dared to go. She was wonderfully outrageous and outrageously wonderful. The result was, we were all happy as clams with our roles.
“The Golden Girls” was the biggest hit of the 1985-86 season: Its debut was the week’s most-watched prime-time broadcast, capturing 43 percent of the available audience – knocking “The Cosby Show” out of the top spot and giving NBC the biggest sitcom debut since “AfterMASH” bowed on CBS, two seasons earlier.
“The Golden Girls” also was one of the year’s best-reviewed shows, although at least one prominent critic didn’t initially appreciate the sitcom’s casting dynamics.
“The character played by Betty White has been made unnecessarily fog-brained, but White gives the part all the spacey dignity she can muster,” the Washington Post’s Tom Shales wrote in his review. “McClanahan is essentially straight lady to the others.”
At the end of season one, “The Golden Girls” was nominated for an Emmy Award for outstanding comedy series; White, McClanahan and their costars – Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty – were each nominated for their portrayals.
The show and White won, creating some tension among the cast, as she hinted at in her book:
The next day on the set was an odd one. Things were somehow quieter than usual. Estelle gave me a big hug and kiss – but she did it outside, before we got into the studio. The crew couldn’t have been warmer or sweeter, but the congratulations were all whispered. Even the big win – for the show itself – was just not mentioned.
Eventually, the other actresses each won an Emmy, too, although only White and Getty were nominated each season the show aired.
“The Golden Girls’” pilot, “The Engagement,” is part of “The Golden Girls: The Complete First Season” DVD set. The next “Betty, White Hot!” installment will be posted tomorrow.
Also on TV
On September 14, 1985, NBC also aired the season premieres of “Gimme a Break!” (the Kaniskis mourn the Chief’s death) and “The Facts of Life” (Edna’s Edibles burns down), the debut of “227” and the “58th Annual Miss American Pageant,” in which Miss Mississippi, Susan Akin, was crowned; ABC broadcast “In Like Flynn,” an unsold pilot starring Jenny Seagrove as an adventure novelist and a rerun of “The Love Boat;” and CBS repeated “Airwolf” and “Illusions,” a 1983 TV-movie starring Karen Valentine as a fashionista.
During the week of September 8, 1985, the number ones were Jackie Collins’ “Lucky” (novel), John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” (song) and “Back to the Future” (movie). In New York, the trial continued in a lawsuit to prohibit a second-grade AIDS patient from attending school.
Captions: “The Golden Girls” cast members, from left, Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan in a photograph from TV Guide’s September 14, 1985, fall preview issue (top, photo by Mario Casilli); White, Arthur and McClanahan on the magazine’s October 19, 1985, cover (middle, photo by Herb Ball); NBC’s advertisement for the series premiere, also from the September 14 edition (bottom).