This week’s installment of Adventures in Feministory goes out to a very special lady, one who broke barriers for older women in the entertainment industry like nobody’s business: Estelle Getty.
Born to Jewish immigrant parents from Poland in New York City in 1923, Estelle Scher started her acting career in the Yiddish theater. She married at age 23, had two sons with husband Arthur Gettleman (she took his name and made it her stage name later in life), and supplemented her acting career by working as an office assistant throughout her middle-aged years. Interestingly enough, she wasn’t “discovered” by Hollywood until she was 62 years old, when she got the role we know her best for, Sophia Petrillo on Golden Girls:
I like that Getty became famous later in life (mostly because it gives me hope that, even though I am now past the TV actress age of 25, I can get discovered on a sitcom someday). It is also worth noting that Getty came from a Jewish immigrant family, and that she got her start in Yiddish theater (not a typical TV star background, especially for a woman). She never had the career many actresses do, the one where they get work based at least partially on their looks for a few decades and then have to find ways to work once they get past the ripe old age of 45. It’s as if, by not finding work until her 60s, Getty was freer to push the envelope when it came to the Sophia character because she wasn’t coming from a place of being encumbered by years of Hollywood-style sexism (well, maybe she was, but I hope she wasn’t). Of her acting career, Getty was reported as saying, “After 50 years in the business, I’m an overnight success.”
Much feminist ink has been spilled (with good reason) on Golden Girls – it had an all-female cast, it prioritized female friendships, and it didn’t shy away from issues older women face like maintaining a post-menopausal sex life. But of all the women on Golden Girls who were challenging our notions of what a prime-time TV actress should be, I’d argue that Estelle Getty takes the stereotype-bustin’ cake. While Rose, Blanche, and Dorothy represented the newly-inducted AARP member set (about 55 to 65), Sophia Petrillo was an old lady. It was rare back then (and it’s even rarer now, unfortunately) to see an 80something woman cracking jokes, hitting on men, and continuing to foster her relationship with her daughter and her friends, but in the hands of Estelle Getty, Sophia made old age look awesome. So awesome, in fact, that she was tapped to host this “Young At Heart” workout video! (If you have an extra four minutes today, you should definitely watch this. Wait for the hilarious jokes Getty makes about senior citizens getting it on – slower is better!)
Getty also wrote an autobiography, If I Knew Then What I Know Now … So What? I haven’t read it, but the title suggests that it is full of the same unique brand of humor she brought to her acting. Getty went on from Golden Girls to play a few more similar roles (Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, anyone?), but she will always be Sophia to most of us.
In 2008, Estelle Getty died from Lewy Body Dementia, but her legacy as a pioneer for older women on TV won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Not as long as there are legions of fans who hope to be just like Sophia when they grow up.