Bea Arthur had an illustrious career before she graced TV screens as Dorothy Zbornak in the 1980s and 1990s. The famed The Golden Girls actress had appeared in several television shows and was well-known in Hollywood, but that didn’t mean she was a shoo-in for the part. In fact, NBC executives hated the idea of Arthur taking on the role of Dorothy and asked the production team to consider other actors, even after they had settled on Arthur. A second quick casting change altered the show’s eventual stars, too.
NBC executives feared that Bea Arthur wasn’t likable enough for the series
The team behind The Golden Girls was set on including Arthur in the show. She had already been cast as Dorothy when NBC executives had a sit down with the production team and asked them to consider other options. They feared Arthur wasn’t likable enough to be a major cast member on the series, even though she had headlined previous TV projects. Her previous roles were actually the reason why executives were worried.
In one of her previous roles, Arthur played Maude Findlay on the show, Maude. She never rated particularly well with audiences, but, according to Fox News, the character’s decision to have an abortion turned audiences completely against Maude and Arthur, herself. Executives were apparently concerned the distaste people had for Maude would follow Arthur onto the set of The Golden Girls. While NBC tried to court other actors, including Elaine Stritch, the team finally put their foot down and insisted that Arthur be given the role. She portrayed Dorothy for the entirety of the show’s seven-season run.
Rue McClanahan almost portrayed Rose Nyland
Rue McClanahan was famous for her portrayal of the sultry Blanche Devereaux, but she only took on the role after a last-minute casting change. Initially, McClanahan was ready to take on the part of Rose Nylund. She had auditioned for Rose when the team behind the series tapped Betty White for the part of Blanche. White had played similar roles before and felt like a perfect fit. Her past roles, just like Arthur’s past roles, are what turned the production team off, though.
Everyone was reportedly worried that viewers would confuse the character of Blanche with White’s previous portrayal of Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. To help shake White out of the sex-obsessed stereotype of her past, they swapped her and McClanahan. In short, the role that seemed to come so naturally to White was actually the exact opposite of the type of parts she was used to playing.
Bea Arthur came to hate the way writers treated her character
Even if the battle was won, Arthur eventually came to hate The Golden Girls and the way the writers treated her character. The series was known for its biting and sarcastic dialogue, but Arthur took particular issue with the way her character was bashed in the show. Most of the jokes about Dorothy focused on how she was too tall, too ugly, and totally unloveable because of it. From season 1, she was treated as a bit of a misfit, perhaps because of her size. Arthur, at a striking height of 5’10, was almost a foot taller than Estelle Getty, who played her mother, Sophia Petrillo. McClanahan stood at 5’3, while White is 5’4.
James Colucci, the author of Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind The Lanai, wrote that the jokes eventually got to Arthur because of how focused they were on her looks. While the scripts made fun of each character, neither White’s character nor McClanahan’s character was attacked for their looks.