Skip to content

Estelle Getty: Beloved Star of The Golden Girls

Full Name: Estelle Scher
Born: July 25, 1923 in New York City, NY
Died: July 22, 2008 in Los Angeles, CA
Spouse: Arthur Gettleman (m. 1945-2004, his death)
Children: 2 sons, Carl & Barry Gettleman
Height: 4‘ 11"
Net Worth: $8 million (estimated)
Social Media: Instagram, Facebook

Estelle Getty is most well known for charming audiences as Sophia Petrillo on the classic 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls. With her wisecracks, brutal honesty and no-nonsense Brooklyn attitude, Sophia became one of the most popular and quotable characters in television history. But before her star-making turn on the show, Estelle had a long road to fame and struggled for decades before achieving success later in life.

Estelle‘s journey reflects her determination and talent in the face of adversity. Though she didn‘t get her big break until her 60s, she paved the way for older actresses and comedians to showcase their skills. Estelle‘s quick wit and comedic timing earned her iconic status and generations of fans. Let‘s take a closer look at her personal life and illustrious career.

Early Life and Family

Estelle was born in 1923 in Manhattan to Jewish parents Sarah and Charles Scher, who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. She grew up in a tenement on the Lower East Side with her two older brothers, David and Ben. Her father worked as a glassware salesman.

From a young age, Estelle amused family members with spot-on accents and voices. Her flair for comedy was evident even as a child. After high school, she pursued theater and performing arts while working office jobs on the side.

In 1945, Estelle married Arthur Gettleman, who came from a prosperous family that owned a furniture business. Arthur was a businessman but also wrote songs. Estelle credited him with being enormously supportive of her entertainment career when few others were. The couple had two sons together – Carl, born in 1946, and Barry, born in 1949.

Carl Gettleman became a prominent real estate developer in Southern California. Her other son Barry owned a service station and car repair shop. Estelle was also a doting grandmother to three grandchildren.

Early Career in Comedy

Estelle continued studying acting through classes and summer stock theater. She appeared in productions like Catch Me If You Can and Death of a Salesman early on.

By the 1950s, she was doing stand-up comedy routines at resorts in the Borscht Belt of the Catskill Mountains. This is where she honed her skills at doing irreverent, exaggerated Jewish mother characters.

Throughout the 1960s, Estelle performed sketch comedy and one-woman shows at nightclubs and theaters in New York City. She took on offbeat personas, spoofing stereotypes of Jewish women.

Estelle didn‘t make her film debut until she was over 40 years old, playing a supporting role in the 1966 Sidney Poitier film For Love of Ivy. She also appeared in small TV roles on shows like Detective School, Taxi and Love, Sidney in the late 1970s and early 80s. But she was still struggling to get noticed in Hollywood.

Achieving Fame on The Golden Girls

Estelle didn‘t make her first TV series regular role until 1984 at age 60 when she was cast as a judge on the short-lived drama Foley Square.

The next year, her agent encouraged her to audition for the role of the outspoken Southern belle Blanche Devereaux on a new NBC comedy called The Golden Girls. At first, the show‘s creator thought Estelle was too Jewish to play Blanche. But during her audition, Estelle conjured up an amusing side character with a Brooklyn accent that became Sophia Petrillo.

Sophia, the elderly mother of character Dorothy Zbornak, won Estelle the role and changed her life. She achieved fame as the feisty, wise-cracking fan favorite Sophia. Estelle won an Emmy Award in 1988 for her performance on the hit show.

In a 1988 interview, she revealed, "I was afraid of retirement. What would I do? Sophia gave me somewhere to go in the morning and a red carpet to walk down. I‘ve waited a long time for fame, but now that it‘s here, I‘m enjoying every minute."

Estelle cherished the close bond she formed with her Golden Girls costars Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White on and off screen. Their chemistry contributed hugely to the show‘s magic.

Continued Acting Work

After The Golden Girls ended in 1992, Estelle kept acting into her 80s with various film and TV roles. She reprised her character Sophia on the spinoff The Golden Palace in 1992-1993, as well as on other shows like Empty Nest and Blossom.

Some of her notable movie parts included playing Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s mother in Twins (1988) and Danny DeVito‘s mom in Tin Men (1987). She also did voice work as Aunt Batty in the animated film Bats About Bats (2010).

One of her last roles was in the 2000 TV movie The Million Dollar Kid about a family bickering over a dying man‘s fortune. Estelle played a former childhood friend of the patriarch. Even as she aged, her comedic chops never faltered.

Awards and Accolades

Throughout her career, Estelle won numerous awards highlighting her contributions to television comedy:

  • Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (1988)
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film (1986)
  • Two American Comedy Awards for Funniest Supporting Female in a Comedy Series
  • TV Land Pop Culture Icon Award (2008) as part of The Golden Girls ensemble
  • Hollywood Walk of Fame Star (1991)

Estelle Getty‘s portrayal of Sophia Petrillo ultimately became her most legendary, leaving an enduring legacy. She helped pave the way for older actresses in Hollywood.

Later Years and Death

In her last decade, Estelle began having health issues like osteoporosis, heart problems and eventually Parkinson‘s disease. She retired from acting in 2000 as her health declined. The disease made her bones very frail and she eventually needed a wheelchair.

Estelle passed away in her sleep on July 22, 2008 at age 84 at her home in Los Angeles. Her gravestone fittingly reads "Truly the end of an era" as she was laid to rest next to her husband Arthur, who had died in 2004.

The actress‘s one-of-a-kind talent and spirit leaves a lasting impression on pop culture. Through playing Sophia Petrillo, Estelle Getty became a comedic trailblazer who inspired older women everywhere to embrace their age with sass and confidence.