‘Golden Girls’ star Betty White made jokes at Estelle Getty’s ‘expense’ to deflect from her dementia

golden girls betty estelle 2

“Golden Girls” writer Stan Zimmerman is reflecting on the ever-eclectic, significantly talented group of women he’s worked with in Hollywood, as well as some of the intriguing dynamics he witnessed on set of one of America’s most beloved sitcoms. 

He writes extensively about his experiences in his book, “The Girls: From Golden To Gilmore,” and spoke candidly with Fox News Digital about his perception of actress Betty White.

Writing several scripts for the show’s premiere season, Zimmerman questioned the way White treated co-star Estelle Getty.


Bea Arthur looks serious as Dorothy, in front of Rue McClanahan in the back with Betty white smiling looking to her left and Estelle Getty in the front for a promotional picture of "Golden Girls"

“Golden Girls” ran for seven seasons, premiering in 1985. The series followed four women, Rose Nylund (Betty White), Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) and Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan). (Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images)

During those early days, Getty was having trouble remembering her lines. 

“The thought in the writer’s room was that she was out going to Hollywood parties because here she was, a sudden celebrity,” Zimmerman shared. “That she wasn’t studying hard enough.”

In reality, he believes Getty was dealing with dementia, though she had not been formally diagnosed with the illness at the time. Getty was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia many years later. She died in 2008.

The cast of 'Golden Girls' sits around a table but Estelle Getty (Sophia) stands

Stan Zimmerman says during the first season of “Golden Girls,” Estelle Getty had been dealing with early dementia. (ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

“That’s why sometimes [in] scenes, you’ll see Sophia eating raisins. She actually has the lines on her hands,” Zimmerman explained of Getty’s character. “So, when we would break because of a mistake from Estelle, Betty would go walk over to the bleachers and start making jokes. And, at the time, because I was close with Estelle, I felt, ‘Why is she making fun of Estelle?’ I was very protective,” he said.

Zimmerman and Getty had cultivated a close friendship while he was writing for the show, and he initially thought White was taking an opportunity to go “off making jokes at the expense of Estelle.”

Betty White in pink looks at Estelle Getty in a patterned outfit on the set of "Golden Girls" as Rose and Sophia

Betty White and Estelle Getty portray Rose Nylund and Sophia Petrillo on the set of “Golden Girls.” (ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

Reflecting on the situation decades later, Zimmerman believes White was purposely deflecting away from Getty’s struggles. 

“I think Betty was steering the attention away from Estelle, going up to the audience so that people would be looking at her over there and let Estelle have the moment to collect herself, look at the script.”

Zimmerman says White “knew Estelle had panic attacks every time we went to go film. You have to understand, Estelle Getty came from the theater, where you rehearse the same script over and over and over and over. In television, you’re always changing lines, sometimes in between takes.”


“Imagine you’re having these feelings. You’re used to being in a career of theater where you’ve memorized lots of lines, and then you’re in front of a huge studio, cameras, multimillions of dollars being spent. You have the network in the studio all there and the lights are on you. So, I think, you know, that’s what got Estelle … very panicked every week. And she started talking about how, you know, she had to go to therapy to help her work through her fear of those tape nights.”

Betty White in silver floral dress smiles next to Estelle Getty in a purple dress and patterned scarf

Betty White poses for a photo with “Golden Girls” co-star Estelle Getty. (Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch via Getty Images)

Zimmerman says adjusting to quick script changes was “a muscle” the other leading women, aside from Getty, had. “Golden Girls” lasted seven seasons and also starred actresses Rue McClanahan and Bea Arthur.

“I think that was just a life lesson in really putting yourself in everybody’s shoes,” Zimmerman said of his takeaway. “Like, put yourself in Betty’s shoes. What is she supposed to do?


“She has a great sense of humor. She thinks on her feet. So, you know, she goes and takes care of it. You know, but I also remember her playing Sue Ann Niven on “[The] Mary Tyler Moore [Show].” That was a very bitchy, mean character. So I think maybe in my head, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, she’s just being Sue Ann Nivens,” he suggested of White’s off-camera demeanor.

Betty White in a blue jacket leans against Bea Arthur in a brown jacket

Rumors have swirled over the years that Betty White and Bea Arthur did not like each other on the set of “Golden Girls.” (Desiree Navarro/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

Zimmerman also touched on rumors White and Arthur didn’t get along. 

“During our time on set, I never felt tension between the two,” he wrote in the book. “I only heard stories and recently learned, from producer Marsha Posner Williams on a podcast, that Bea thought Betty was two-faced. Bea liked real people. I had the sense that Betty was more like Sue Ann Nivens, the character she played on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ than she was like Rose. More conniving than the innocent airhead from St. Olaf.”

While speaking to Fox News Digital, Zimmerman suggested what may have been the source of friction. 

“I have since learned they have very different styles. Bea Arthur really came from the stage and just had a different ethos of working. Whereas, Betty came from television.

“So, it was just different work ethics. I mean, they both got the job done extremely well. But just — just a difference of personalities.”

The surviving cast of The Golden Girls at the TV Land Awards

“Golden Girls” stars Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Bea Arthur on stage at The 6th Annual “TV Land Awards” in 2008.  (Chris Polk/FilmMagic)

Zimmerman is credited with writing episodes like “Blanche and the Younger Man,” and “Rose’s Mother” in season 1. In his book, he also writes about his time working on shows like “Roseanne” and “Gilmore Girls.” He’s worked with numerous Hollywood legends, including Lily Tomlin and Sandra Bernhard.

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