Estelle Getty Biography

Film Actor/Film Actress, Actress, Film Actress, Theater Actress, Television Actress (1923–2008)
Estelle Getty played Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls, and was one of television’s most popular comedic actresses of the 1980s.


For decades, Estelle Getty performed in Yiddish theaters, off Broadway shows, and touring productions. In the 1980s, she had a career breakthrough in Torch Song Trilogy. She also made a few TV guest appearances on such shows as Cagney & Lacey and Newhart. In 1985 she was in the film Mask. That same year, she took a role on The Golden Girls. She retired from acting in 2000 for health reasons.

Early Life

Actress. Born Estelle Scher on July 25, 1923, in New York, New York. As the sarcastic, crabby scene stealer Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls, Estelle Getty became one of television's most popular comedic actresses of the 1980s. Growing up New York City's Lower East Side, she first dreamed of becoming an actress as a child.

While working as a waitress in the Catskills, Getty tried her hand at stand-up comedy but found the audiences unreceptive to a female comic. She later took a job as a secretary while trying to find work as an actor. In 1947, Getty married Arthur Gettleman, and they had two sons, Barry and Carl. She took a few years off to be with her children before resuming her passion for acting.

Career Breakthrough

For decades, Getty performed in Yiddish theaters, off Broadway shows, and touring productions. In the 1980s, she had a career breakthrough playing a Jewish mother with traditional values who learns that her son played by Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy, is gay. Her performance earned her a Drama Desk Award nomination in 1982. Around this time, Getty also made a few television guest appearances on such shows as Cagney & Lacey, Hotel, and Newhart.

Again taking a maternal part, Getty played Cher's mother in the drama Mask (1985), one of her first substantial film roles. That same year, she took the country by storm as the small and sassy Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls. In the show, she played Bea Arthur's mother, even though they were very close in age. Getty wore a wig and learned to carry herself as an older person. She was so convincing that people were often shocked to learn that she was really in her sixties, not her eighties.

Golden Girls Success

Also co-starring Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, The Golden Girls broke new comedic ground, proving that audiences would tune in to see a show about mature women. All of the lead actresses were skilled performers with excellent comedic timing, but Getty often got the biggest laugh with her character's sharp dialogue. Sophia Petrillo was such a hit that the character even appeared on other shows, such as Blossom and Empty Nest. For her portrayal of Sophia, Getty was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series seven times and won it once in 1988.

During the run of the show, Getty found time for other projects, but none were as successful. She appeared with Andrew McCarthy in the comedy Mannequin (1987). Getty later co-starred with Sylvester Stallone in the box office bomb, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992), playing the titular mother.

After The Golden Girls ended in 1992, some of the show's characters were featured on The Golden Palace. In this new version, Getty's character, along with McClannan's and White's, buy a Miami hotel together. The show suffered from the absence of Bea Arthur and lacked the magic of the original. It only lasted one season.

Final Years

Continuing to work, Getty appeared on such shows as Touched by an Angel and Mad About You. One of her later roles was Grandma Estelle Little in the popular children's film Stuart Little (1999). She retired from acting in 2000 for health reasons. Originally thought to have Parkinson's disease, Getty was later diagnosed with a form of dementia. With some assistance, she lived at her home in Los Angeles for many years until her death at age 84. She died of natural causes on the morning of July 22, 2008, surrounded by family and friends.

At the time of her death, several of her former co-stars expressed their sadness over Getty's passing. "Our mother-daughter relationship was one of the greatest comic duos ever, and I will miss her," Bea Arthur said, according to US magazine. "The only comfort at this moment is that although Estelle has moved on, Sophia will always be with us," Betty White told US.

Getty is survived by her two sons. Her son Carl told People magazine that his mother "was loved throughout the world. . . . She was one of the most talented comedic actresses who ever lived."

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