It’s been almost nine months since Rue McClanahan died. She was the third of the Golden Girls to leave us, following Estelle Getty, who died in 2008, and Bea Arthur, who died less than a year after her TV mom in 2009. These beloved actresses charmed us for seven seasons on one of the era’s most popular sitcoms, making us think of ourselves or our own mothers or grandmothers – only maybe a little funnier.
Rue McClanahan would have turned 77 on February 21, 2011. We commemorate the day with a look at the Golden Girl’s work and life.
On The Golden Girls, McClanahan played Blanche Devereaux, the southern belle with an appetite for men. The character took a lot of ribbing – not all of it good-natured – from her housemates about her active love life. But she also showed us something that hadn’t been covered much on TV at that time: romance doesn’t just end when you hit 40… or 50… or 60... Single women viewing the show must have felt empowered to see a woman who didn’t turn in her “sex card” when she turned 50 and didn’t lose her romantic appeal just because she lost her husband. Blanche was liberated and free, unashamed about her active love life, and a lot of fun. McClanahan portrayed her perfectly – so much so that she won an Emmy in 1987 for the role.
In real life, Rue McClanahan was no stranger to love and romance. Married six times (to five men), she poked fun at this statistic in her autobiography My First Five Husbands… And the Ones Who Got Away. And she was more than just Blanche Devereaux. McClanahan broke into showbiz with stage work, acting off-Broadway for a dozen years until her Broadway debut in 1969, playing opposite Dustin Hoffman in Jimmy Shine. Soon after the show’s run, she broke into television with a role on Another World. In a delightfully over-the-top soap opera plot, her character, a caregiver to young twin boys, fell in love with their father, began poisoning their mother, and ultimately kidnapped the boys. She followed it with another soapy role on Where the Heart Is.
In 1972, Maude debuted, with McClanahan playing the title character’s best friend Vivian. The scatterbrained character brought McClanahan more recognition and fame – and it was her first chance to act with Bea Arthur, who played Maude and became both a costar and a friend. They learned from each other, and shared political views.
After Maude’s six-season run, McClanahan spent two seasons on TV’s Mama’s Family, then jumped to her best-known role on The Golden Girls. In addition to McClanahan’s Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, the show won two Emmys and three Golden Globes for outstanding comedy series, and each of McClanahan’s costars won her own Emmy for acting. And The Golden Girls reveled in the occasional controversy it generated, from portraying sexually active senior citizens, to airing Blanche’s gay brother’s coming out and commitment ceremony, to having these stylish older women tell us not to wear fur. The controversies didn’t hurt the ratings, which were favorable throughout the show’s seven-year run.
Rue McClanahan with costars Estelle Getty and Betty White.
McClanahan’s post-Golden Girls career stayed strong, with regular guest spots and movie appearances. And she let her political views come to the forefront, advocating for gay rights and same-sex marriage, and actively supporting PETA and Farm Sanctuary. A vegetarian, McClanahan spoke out against wearing fur, hunting and cockfighting. She and her Golden Girls costars appeared in a PETA anti-fur PSA, and McClanahan recorded another PSA near the end of her life for Alley Cat Allies, an organization she supported that helps protect and improve the lives of cats.
In 1997, McClanahan was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was treated successfully. But health issues would plague her further toward the end of her life – triple-bypass surgery in November 2009, followed by a minor stroke in January 2010. Five months later, Rue McClanahan suffered another stroke and died on June 3, 2010.
Only one of Rue McClanahan’s fellow Golden Girls remains with us today, Betty White, and we sincerely hope not to be writing of her in the Obit Report for many years to come. For now, no piece about a Golden Girl would be complete without America’s favorite earworm.