‘The Golden Girls’: Estelle Getty Asked Producers To Change One Thing About Sophia Petrillo

Estelle Getty was a comedic genius during her time on The Golden Girls. Her character, Sophia Petrillo, became a fan favorite early on in the series’ run. In fact, Getty’s performance was so good that she earned herself a promotion to the main cast. Initially, the role was a guest spot. Still, Getty wasn’t comfortable with the world of television and even asked the production team to change one of Sophia’s defining characteristics to make the part easier for her.

Estelle Getty wasn’t a TV actor before The Golden Girls 

From watching episodes of The Golden Girls on TV, fans would never know that one of the show’s stars was immensely uncomfortable with the process. In her memoir, My First Five Husbands… And the Ones Who Got Away, Rue McClanahan noted that Getty grew increasingly nervous as the show progressed. McClanahan, who portrayed Blanche Devereaux on The Golden Girls, hypothesized that Getty was experiencing signs of dementia even back then. That has not been proven, but what is known is that Getty wasn’t comfortable on television from the very start of her career. Getty died in 2008 of Lewy Body Dementia.

Estelle Getty at the Chasen's Restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1991
Estelle Getty | Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

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Getty had spent decades acting in stage productions in New York. While she picked up a few quick guest roles on television here and there, The Golden Girls was her first major role in a television series. She was comfortable on the stage but didn’t find the set a relaxing environment. The process didn’t sit well with her, and she grew more anxious as her memory appeared to falter.

Estelle Getty wanted Sophia to be Jewish instead of Sicilian

Some of Sophia’s most iconic moments came when she was sharing tales from her time in Sicily. Sophia’s heritage was an important part of the character, but Getty wasn’t particularly comfortable with the characters at first. According to IMDb, she requested to change Sophia’s heritage to Jewish.

Getty and Arthur were both Jewish, and Getty felt that changing the characters’ Sicilian heritage to Jewish would make it easier for her to portray the sharp-tongued senior citizen. Producers reportedly refused to make the switch, and eventually, Getty grew more comfortable in the role. Her memories of Sicily quickly became some of the best moments in the show’s seven seasons.

Estelle Getty did pull from her own life to portray Sophia on The Golden Girls

While Getty wasn’t Sicilian, she did have some connection to Sophia’s character. Getty was a New Yorker, just like Sophia, albeit from a different neighborhood. Sophia and her husband, Sal Petrillo, spent years living in New York before she and Dorothy Zbornak moved to Florida. Sophia and Sal called Brooklyn home, while Getty was partial to different boroughs.

Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo, Bea Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak, Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux and Betty White as Rose Nylund
Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo, Bea Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak, Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux and Betty White as Rose Nylund | Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

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Getty herself had grown up in New York, although she lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan instead of Brooklyn. After her marriage to Arthur Gettleman in 1946, Getty settled into married life in the Bronx. Eventually, she and her husband moved to Queens to raise their family. By the time Getty landed her role in the Golden Girls, she had a deep understanding of life in New York and long-lasting marriage, something her character drew on regularly.