Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Estelle Getty


The diminutive character actress who won the Emmy award playing the acerbic mother on The Golden Girls reached stardom very late in her career. In her early days, she attempted stand-up comedy on the borscht belt, and bombed. She spent the majority of her life as a wife and mother and office worker in Queens. The luckiest day of her life was probably the day Harvey Fierstein cast her to play his mother in his off-off-Broadway creation, Widows and Children First! The one act was later joined with two other of Fierstein's autobiographical works, and became Torch Song Trilogy. Getty traveled with the play as it moved to Broadway. Here she is in the show's earliest incarnation, opposite the playwright and a very young Matthew Broderick, about a year before his starring role in Max Dugan Returns took him to Hollywood:

Getty went with Torch Song when it opened in Los Angeles, which is where I first saw her. Onstage, she had an obvious comic timing, but I felt somehow unconvinced that she was actually playing a real person. Fierstein takes credit for "discovering" Getty, and he surely deserves it, for it was during this onstage run that she auditioned, repeatedly, for the role which would make her a star. She was substantially too young to play the 80-year old Sophia, as I have previously mentioned, but when she played her final callback in full makeup and wig, she landed the part. (Scuttlebutt at the time claimed she beat out a few heavy hitters for the role, including TV legend Imogene Coca.)

"Sophia" was an immediate smash with the viewing audience, with her quick wit and her withering sarcasm. I admired Getty's ability to wring laughs out of just about anything, but in my opinion, she was outshone by her far more talented co-stars. Her work lacked the depth which the other three vets brought to their roles (just check out the episode in which her son is buried to see what I mean), but I greatly admire the way she stepped up to the plate among three comic powerhouses, and she certainly held her own.

When Torch Song Trilogy was filmed, Getty lost the role which she had created and played onstage for years. As Harvey Fierstein, who was playing the leading role, was virtually unknown to the movie public, he had to be surrounded by a few bankable names. Matthew Broderick, by then a bona fide movie star, signed on (playing a different role than he had onstage in New York), and Anne Bancroft took Getty's role as the mother. (Both Broderick and Bancroft had billing over Fierstein, though his role was by far the largest and most important in the film.) Once the movie was released, I could see immediately why I thought something had been missing from Getty's stage performance, as Bancroft brought much needed depth and humanity to the part.

But I have to say I admire the fact that Estelle Getty kept plugging along in her career, despite not having much success until well into her 50s. While she was not the most versatile comic actress on the planet, she may have been the most indefatigable.

Off to Shady Pines.

Update as of 7/27/08: Despite constant protestations that the cast of the "Golden Girls" was a close-knit family, Getty's costars, all of whom survive her, were all absent from her funeral.