‘Golden Girls’ star Betty White made jokes at Estelle Getty’s ‘expense’ to deflect from her dementia: author

“Golden Girls” writer Stan Zimmerman is reflecting on the ever-eclectic, significantly talented group of women he’s worked with in Hollywood, as well as some of the intriguing dynamics he witnessed on set of one of America’s most beloved sitcoms.

He writes extensively about his experiences in his book, “The Girls: From Golden To Gilmore,” and spoke candidly with Fox News Digital about his perception of actress Betty White.

Writing several scripts for the show’s premiere season, Zimmerman questioned the way White treated co-star Estelle Getty.

During those early days, Getty was having trouble remembering her lines.

“The thought in the writer’s room was that she was out going to Hollywood parties because here she was, a sudden celebrity,” Zimmerman shared. “That she wasn’t studying hard enough.”

In reality, he believes Getty was dealing with dementia, though she had not been formally diagnosed with the illness at the time. Getty was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia many years later. She died in 2008.

“That’s why sometimes [in] scenes, you’ll see Sophia eating raisins. She actually has the lines on her hands,” Zimmerman explained of Getty’s character. “So, when we would break because of a mistake from Estelle, Betty would go walk over to the bleachers and start making jokes. And, at the time, because I was close with Estelle, I felt, ‘Why is she making fun of Estelle?’ I was very protective,” he said.


Zimmerman and Getty had cultivated a close friendship while he was writing for the show, and he initially thought White was taking an opportunity to go “off making jokes at the expense of Estelle.”

Reflecting on the situation decades later, Zimmerman believes White was purposely deflecting away from Getty’s struggles.

“I think Betty was steering the attention away from Estelle, going up to the audience so that people would be looking at her over there and let Estelle have the moment to collect herself, look at the script.”

Zimmerman says White “knew Estelle had panic attacks every time we went to go film. You have to understand, Estelle Getty came from the theater, where you rehearse the same script over and over and over and over. In television, you’re always changing lines, sometimes in between takes.”

“Imagine you’re having these feelings. You’re used to being in a career of theater where you’ve memorized lots of lines, and then you’re in front of a huge studio, cameras, multimillions of dollars being spent. You have the network in the studio all there and the lights are on you. So, I think, you know, that’s what got Estelle … very panicked every week. And she started talking about how, you know, she had to go to therapy to help her work through her fear of those tape nights.”

Getty was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia and died in 2008.Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Zimmerman says adjusting to quick script changes was “a muscle” the other leading women, aside from Getty, had. “Golden Girls” lasted seven seasons and also starred actresses Rue McClanahan and Bea Arthur.

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“I think that was just a life lesson in really putting yourself in everybody’s shoes,” Zimmerman said of his takeaway. “Like, put yourself in Betty’s shoes. What is she supposed to do?

“She has a great sense of humor. She thinks on her feet. So, you know, she goes and takes care of it. You know, but I also remember her playing Sue Ann Niven on “[The] Mary Tyler Moore [Show].” That was a very bitchy, mean character. So I think maybe in my head, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, she’s just being Sue Ann Nivens,” he suggested of White’s off-camera demeanor.

Zimmerman also touched on rumors White and Arthur didn’t get along.

“During our time on set, I never felt tension between the two,” he wrote in the book. “I only heard stories and recently learned, from producer Marsha Posner Williams on a podcast, that Bea thought Betty was two-faced. Bea liked real people. I had the sense that Betty was more like Sue Ann Nivens, the character she played on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ than she was like Rose. More conniving than the innocent airhead from St. Olaf.”

Zimmerman at first thought White was taking an opportunity to go “off making jokes at the expense of Estelle.”©Touchstone Television/Courtesy Everett Collection

While speaking to Fox News Digital, Zimmerman suggested what may have been the source of friction.

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