New Zealand Woman’s Weekly
GOLDEN GIRLS FEUD
The truth about Betty and Bea’s “friendship”
‘Dorothy was a very strong character, but Bea was so shy. It was endearing’
Even when Betty White messed up a scene during a Golden Girls taping, she could captivate the audience. “Betty was an entertainer – a good actress, but an entertainer,” recalls show writer Barry Fanaro. “She’d flub a line, lift her skirt and say, ‘Wooo, sailor!’”
But while Betty’s onset antics tickled the crowd, they left one co-star bristling. “You’d look at Bea and she was not happy,” remembers Barry.
Rumours of fights between Bea Arthur, who died in 2009, and her co-star Betty have persisted for decades.
“Bea had a reserve. She was not that fond of me,” Betty has finally admitted, and now those who worked on the show reveal the truth about their rift.
“They worked long hours, tempers flare and you have disagreements over the years,” writer-producer Stan Zimmerman tells the Weekly, though he insists the two never let it compromise their work.
“There was a love and respect for each other. They weren’t alike and they came from different backgrounds, but they had this amazing shared experience no-one could’ve predicted.”
All the verbal jabs and death stares that Dorothy
(Bea) threw at Rose (Betty) on the show helped fuel talk of dissonance behind the scenes.
“Their characters had a combative relationship,” explains Stan, who is shopping around a gay take on The Golden Girls, called Silver Foxes. “Dorothy didn’t have any patience for Rose and she wasn’t shy about it. I think people started thinking that was true in real life.”
Bea’s reputation only added to the tension. “I was scared of her at first. She’s an imposing person – she’s Maude!” Stan admits about his first dealings with Bea, who was well known for her blunt and forward character from her former hit series. Her toughness was all a façade, however.
“She was fundamentally an insecure woman, which was shocking,” Rick Copp, a writer and story editor on the show, tells the Weekly.
“I’d watched Maude and how outspoken she was. And Dorothy was a very strong character, but Bea was so shy. It was endearing, actually.”
It didn’t help Bea’s confidence that many of the show’s jokes poked fun at her looks.
“There was a lot of Dorothy bashing in the first few seasons before I got there,” says Rick, who writes, produces and stars in the web series Where the Bears Are. “They’d make Dorothy-is-ugly jokes and
Bea was sensitive to that. It was hard for her to speak up, but you could see it really bothered her.”
Bea’s insecurity was a stark contrast to Betty’s self-assuredness. “Bea was imposing on the outside and a mush ball on the inside. Betty’s the opposite,” tells Jim Colucci, author of Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Biography. “Betty’s grandmotherly and sweet, but she’s got real inner strength. I think Bea thought that meant she was a phony and that she was putting on all her niceness.”
Their different backgrounds and training also highlighted the chasm between them. Bea, who won a Tony in 1966 for her role in Broadway’s Mame, “came from the old school of Norman Lear”, says Jim, “where sitcoms were filmed like stage plays and done with up-close reactions.” Betty, on the other hand, “was from the Mary Tyler Moore school where everything is a very subtle character moment. The jokes are more gentle.”
This led to two contrasting approaches to work. “Bea would hold the script in her hand until the very last minute,” explains Jim. “Betty, almost at the table read, would be off-book. She could incorporate new lines just by hearing them, so she was able to clown around with the audience.”
That got to Bea. “It would make my mum unhappy that in between takes, Betty would talk to the audience,” reveals Bea’s son Matthew Saks. “It wasn’t jealousy. It was a focus thing. My mum unknowingly carried the
‘It was almost like Betty became her nemesis, someone she could always roll her eyes about at work’
“Bea once said, ‘Betty would die at work’ and that was not necessarily a compliment”
attitude that it was fun to have somebody to be angry at,” he adds. “It was almost like Betty became her nemesis, someone she could always roll her eyes about at work.”
Rue McClanahan, who played Blanche Devereaux and died in 2010, once admitted that she sensed some distance from Bea during their years on the show. “It was a wonderful experience for me and for Betty,” she said, but “Bea was never quite happy.”
Betty, after all, “was there when they were inventing TV in the late ’40s, while Bea came from a theatre background”, Jim notes of Betty’s passion for the medium, which Bea didn’t share.
“Bea once said, ‘Betty would die at work,’ and that was not necessarily a compliment as far as Bea was concerned,” recalls Marc Cherry, a Golden Girls writer who went on to create Desperate Housewives. “Bea wanted to do other things than act.”
Betty, who is now 96, made her career a priority, especially after the 1981 death of her husband Allen Ludden. “Who, at 90, does a five-year series, Hot in Cleveland?” asks Rick.
Betty’s only recently opened up about her and Bea’s rocky relationship and their fights. “I don’t know what I ever did, but she was not that thrilled with me,” she says, hinting she has some hunches. “She found me a pain in the neck sometimes. It was my positive attitude – and that made Bea mad. Sometimes if I was happy, she’d be furious.”
After Bea’s 2009 death,
Rue spoke at her memorial in New York, revealing that
Bea once referred to Betty by a vulgar term. Betty – who didn’t attend the service – never let Bea’s insecurities affect her own feelings.
“I loved Bea and I admired her,” she insists, and at the time of her co-star’s death, said in a statement that captured their lasting friendship, “I knew it would hurt. I just didn’t know it would hurt this much.”
As for major turmoil behind the scenes, those who worked on the show say it just isn’t true. “I’d love to have a juicy story about a catfight on the set, but I just never saw it,” insists Rick.
“They really did get along,” confirms Barry, who only overheard one disagreement that had Bea and Betty “going at it”, but it ended quickly.
“They made up. There was a kiss,” he shares. “I could look out from my office and see Bea sitting there, waiting for Betty. She’d grab her hand and they’d walk to dinner.”
Both Bea and Betty lost their mothers during the show’s first season, so they quickly learned they could turn to one another for support. That closeness may have played a role in their sweet hand-holding tradition, which Jim says is “so interesting and symbolic – that even if they had different approaches to work, they knew they were a team”.
In fact, Bea’s son Matthew says their dynamic felt more familial. “And you know how families are,” he says, adding that he and Betty are more than cordial whenever they see each other. He also says that he’s sure his mum would want to clear the air about her and Betty’s relationship. “Everyone knows life’s too short, and she’d probably look back and say those were good times.”
The fact that the show is still so popular proves that whatever went on behind the scenes created pure magic on screen. For that, millions of fans remain grateful.
“At the end of the day,”
Stan says of the characters and the legendary actresses who played them, “they came together over cheesecake and loved each other”.