The Golden Girls is an American sitcom created by Susan Harris that originally aired on NBC from September 14, 1985, to May 9, 1992, with a total of 180 half-hour episodes spanning seven seasons. The show stars Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty as four older women who share a home in Miami, Florida. It was produced by Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions, in association with Touchstone Television, and Paul Junger Witt. Tony Thomas and Harris served as the original executive producers.
The Golden Girls received critical acclaim throughout most of its run and won several awards including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series twice. It also won three Golden Globe Awards for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy.
Each of the four stars received an Emmy Award, making it one of only three sitcoms in the award’s history to achieve this. The series also ranked among the top-10 highest-rated programs for six of its seven seasons. In 2013, TV Guide ranked The Golden Girls number 54 on its list of the 60 Best Series of All Time. In 2014, the Writers Guild of America placed the sitcom at number 69 in their list of the “101 Best Written TV Series of All Time”.
The show had an ensemble cast. It revolves around four older single women (three widows and one divorcée) sharing a house in Miami, Florida. The owner of the house is a widow named Blanche Devereaux (McClanahan), who was joined by fellow widow Rose Nylund (White) and divorcée Dorothy Zbornak (Arthur), after they both responded to an ad on the bulletin board of a local grocery store a year before the start of the series. In the pilot episode, the three were joined by Dorothy’s 80-year-old mother, Sophia Petrillo (Getty), after the retirement home where she had been living burned down.
The first episode featured a gay houseboy named Coco (played by Charles Levin), but the role was dropped before the second episode. The writers observed that in many of the proposed scripts, the main interaction between the women occurred in the kitchen while preparing and eating food. They decided that a separate cook would distract from their friendship. In addition, the character of Sophia had originally been planned as an occasional guest star, but Getty had tested so positively with preview audiences that the producers decided to make her a regular character.
After six consecutive seasons in the top 10, and the seventh season at number 30, The Golden Girls came to an end when Bea Arthur chose to leave the series. In the hour-long series finale, which aired in May 1992, Dorothy meets and marries Blanche’s uncle Lucas (Leslie Nielsen) and moves to Hollingsworth Manor in Atlanta, Georgia. Sophia was to join her, but in the end, she stays behind with the other women in Miami. This led into the spin-off series, The Golden Palace. The series finale was watched by 27.2 million viewers. As of 2016, it was the 17th-most watched television finale.
- Beatrice Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak (née Petrillo, later Hollingsworth), a substitute teacher. Born in Brooklyn, New York City, to Sicilian immigrants Sophia and Salvatore Petrillo, Dorothy became pregnant while still in high school, resulting in a marriage to Stanley Zbornak (Herb Edelman) to legitimize the baby. Stan and Dorothy eventually moved to Miami, but divorced after 38 years when Stan left her for a young flight attendant. The marriage produced two children, Kate, in her early 20s, and Michael, who was inconsistently aged between his mid-20s and late 30s (Michael was purportedly the cause of the shotgun wedding). In the series’ final episode, Dorothy marries Blanche’s uncle, Lucas Hollingsworth, and relocates to Atlanta. Arthur also played Dorothy’s grandmother, Sophia’s mother, in a flashback episode to when they lived in Brooklyn in the 1950’s when Dorothy was a young adult (even though two episodes — My Father, my Brother, and “The Days and Nights of Sophia Petrillo” stated that Sophia’s mother died when Dorothy was younger).
- Betty White as Rose Nylund (née Lindström), a Norwegian American from the small farming town of St. Olaf, Minnesota. Often slightly naive and known for her humorously peculiar stories of life growing up in her hometown, Rose was happily married to Charlie Nylund, with whom she had five children; three daughters: Kiersten, Bridgette, and Janella; and two sons: Adam and Charlie, Jr. Upon Charlie’s death, she moved to Miami. She eventually finds work at a grief counselling center, but later switches careers and becomes assistant to consumer reporter Enrique Mas at a local TV station. In later seasons, Rose became romantically involved with college professor Miles Webber. During season six, Webber was placed into the Witness Protection Program, but returned later in the season. Their relationship continued throughout the series and shortly into the sequel series, The Golden Palace. In season one, Rose is stated to be 55.
- Rue McClanahan as Blanche Elizabeth (Marie) Devereaux (née Hollingsworth), a Southern belle employed at an art museum. Born into a wealthy family, Blanche grew up as the apple of her father’s eye on a plantation outside of Atlanta, Georgia, prior to her relocation to Miami, where she lived with her husband, George, until his death. Their marriage produced six children; two daughters: Janet and Rebecca; and four sons: Doug, Biff, Skippy, and Matthew. A widow, Blanche was portrayed as man-hungry and clearly had the most male admirers and stories detailing various sexual encounters over the course of the series.
- Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo, Dorothy’s mother. Born in Sicily, Sophia moved to New York after fleeing an arranged marriage to Guido Spirelli. She married Salvatore “Sal” Petrillo, with whom she had three children: Dorothy, Gloria, and Phil, a cross-dresser who later dies of a heart attack (episode “Ebbtide’s Revenge“). Initially a resident of the Shady Pines retirement home after having a stroke prior to the start of the series, she moved in with Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy following a fire at the institution. During the series’ run, Sophia married Max Weinstock, but they soon separated. Throughout the series, she held a few part-time jobs, mostly involving food, including as a fast-food worker and an entrepreneur of spaghetti sauce and homemade sandwiches.
Ideas for a comedy series about older women emerged during the filming of a television special at NBC‘s Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California, in August 1984. Produced to introduce the network’s 1984–85 season schedule, two actresses appearing on NBC shows, Selma Diamond of Night Court and Doris Roberts of Remington Steele, appeared in a skit promoting the upcoming show Miami Vice as Miami Nice, a parody about old people living in Miami. NBC senior vice president Warren Littlefield was among the executive producers in the audience who were amused by their performance, and he envisioned a series based on the geriatric humor the two were portraying.
Shortly afterward, he met with producers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas, who were pitching a show about a female lawyer. Though Littlefield nixed their idea, he asked if they would be interested in delivering a pilot script for Miami Nice instead. Their regular writer declined, so Witt asked his wife, Susan Harris, who had been planning to retire after the conclusion of their ABC series Soap. She found the concept interesting, as “it was a demographic that had never been addressed,” and she soon began work on it.
Though her vision of a sitcom about women in their 60s differed from NBC’s request for a comedy about women around 40 years old, Littlefield was impressed when he received her pilot script and subsequently approved production of it. The Cosby Show director Jay Sandrich, who had previously worked with Harris, Witt, and Thomas on Soap, agreed to direct.
The pilot included a gay houseboy, Coco (Charles Levin), who lived with the girls. Levin had been suggested by then-NBC president Brandon Tartikoff based on Levin’s groundbreaking portrayal of a recurring gay character, Eddie Gregg, on NBC’s Emmy-winning drama Hill Street Blues. After the pilot, the character of Coco was eliminated from the series.
The Golden Girls was shot on videotape in front of a live studio audience. Many episodes of the series followed a similar format or theme. For example, one or more of the women would become involved in some sort of problem, often involving other family members, men, or an ethical dilemma. At some point, they would gather around the kitchen table and discuss the problem, sometimes late at night and often while eating cheesecake or some other dessert. One of the other girls then told a story from her own life, which somehow related to the problem (though Rose occasionally regaled a nonsense story that had nothing to do with the situation, and Sophia told outrageous made-up stories). Some episodes featured flashbacks to previous episodes, flashbacks to events not shown in previous episodes, or to events that occurred before the series began. Though the writing was mostly comical, dramatic moments and sentimental endings were included in several episodes. One of the actresses on the show, Bea Arthur, actually hated cheesecake.
During the NBC upfronts, the preview screening of the show got a standing ovation. The show immediately received a full order of 12 episodes.
An immediate runaway hit, The Golden Girls became an NBC staple on Saturday nights. The show was the anchor of NBC’s Saturday line-up, and almost always won its time slot, as ABC and CBS struggled to find shows to compete against it, the most notable being ABC’s Lucille Ball sitcom Life With Lucy in the beginning of the 1986–87 season. The Golden Girls was part of a series of Brandon Tartikoff shows that put an end to NBC’s ratings slump, along with The Cosby Show, 227, Night Court, Miami Vice, and L.A. Law.
The show dealt with many controversial issues, such as coming out and same-sex marriage, elder care and homelessness, HIV/AIDS and discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS, US immigration policy, death and assisted suicide.
Writer and producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason created a sitcom with this kind of image as a “four women” show, which became Designing Women on CBS. Designing Women began competing against The Golden Girls in the same time slot, however The Golden Girls always got the higher rating, resulting in CBS pushing Designing Women to Mondays.
At the request of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, who was reputedly a big fan, the cast of The Golden Girls performed several skits as their characters in front of her and other members of the Royal Family at the 1988 Royal Variety Performance in London.
During its original run, The Golden Girls received 68 Emmy nominations, 11 Emmy awards, four Golden Globe Awards, and two Viewers for Quality Television awards. All the lead actresses won Emmy Awards for their performances on the show. The Golden Girls is one of three shows, along with All in the Family and Will and Grace where all the principal actors have won at least one Emmy Award.
As a tribute to the success of The Golden Girls, all four actresses were later named Disney Legends.
Beginning July 3, 1989, NBC added daytime reruns of the show, replacing long-running Wheel of Fortune (it moved to CBS) on the NBC schedule at 11:00 a.m.(EST). It ran for a little over a year until September 1990. At this time, syndicated reruns began airing, distributed by Buena Vista Television (now Disney–ABC Domestic Television), the syndication arm of Disney, whose Touchstone Television division produced the series.
In March 1997, the Lifetime cable network acquired the exclusive rights to repeat the episodes of The Golden Girls in the US for over a decade, until March 1, 2009. Many episodes were edited to allow more commercials and for content.
Both the Hallmark Channel and WE tv picked up the reruns in March 2009. As of February 2013, We TV’s rights expired and Viacom networks’ TV Land, home to Betty White’s last series Hot in Cleveland, purchased them, as did Logo TV.
In Australia, the show airs every day on Fox Classics.
In Southeast Asia,began airing reruns of The Golden Girls on its HD channel, HITS, in 2013.
Every episode of The Golden Girls was made available to stream on Hulu on February 13, 2017.