‘The Golden Girls:’ What Elaine Stritch Had to Say About Losing the Role of Dorothy Zbornak

Bea Arthur embodied Dorothy Zbornak as if The Golden Girls character was written for her. And…that’s because it was. Writer Susan Harris penned Dorothy with Bea Arthur in mind for the role, as she had likely witnessed Arthur’s unparalleled deadpan and perfect comedic timing in Maude. Yet, some reports suggest that NBC was against casting Arthur in the sitcom. Then-NBC President Brandon Tartikoff felt Arthur’s “Q” score (a metric for rating a performer’s audience appeal) was too low, as MentalFloss reports. 

Elaine Stritch
Elaine Stritch’ | Robin Marchant / Stringer

Because Arthur had gained a reputation as a far- left-leaning individual (for what such a description implied in 1985), the actor was deemed recognizable but not likable enough on a wide scale. Thus, Elaine Stritch got a shot at reading for the character — mostly at the network’s hand. 

So, Stritch came in to read for the part. Yet, whether or not she read remains a controversial topic in and of itself. Some producers assert that she came in but didn’t read, as Variety recalls. In short, a few different historical accounts surround the Elaine Stritch/Bea Arthur Golden Girls mythos. Yet, Stritch had some strong feelings about losing out regardless. 

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Elaine Stritch talks about losing out on the role of Dorothy Zbornak in ‘The Golden Girls’

Broadway legend Elaine Stritch — who boasts a similar voice to Bea Arthur — is widely known for her theatrical appearances, as she sings one of the most beloved versions of Stephen Sondheim’s “Ladies Who Lunch.” Yet, she almost landed a role in a consistent gig, with some top-notch pay. Speaking about The Golden Girls, Stritch said: 

“I blew it. I blew it. I didn’t get the job. Ha ha ha, I blew it. I blew a 35, 40 or maybe even 50 (if they wanted me badly enough) thousand dollars per episode for the first 13 weeks (and after that who knew ) job. I blew it. A multibillion-, zillion-dollar, international, syndicated residual-grabbing, bofferooni, smasherooni, television situation comedy titled ‘The Golden Girls.”

Elaine Stritch | as qtd by Variety 

And though Elaine Stritch lost out on a hit TV show, Bea Arthur reportedly didn’t even want the gig at the start (at least according to her co-star Rue McClanahan, who played Blanche). 

Bea Arthur reportedly needed some convincing to play Dorothy 

As ABCNews notes, McClanahan and Arthur remember the early stages of The Golden Girls a little differently. While Arthur remembers being excited from the get-go, McClanahan recalls having to give the Maude star a little push. McClanahan said: 

“I said, ‘Why are you turning down the best script that’s ever going to come across your desk as long as you live?’ and she said, ‘Rue, I have no interest in playing Maude and Vivian meets Sue Ann Nevins.’”

McClanahan | ABCNews

Supposedly, when Arthur found out that McClanahan would play Blanche and Betty White would play Rose, her feelings about the show transformed, as such indicated that her two co-stars would be playing against type.