BETTY WHITE & BEA ARTHUR
BETTY OPENS UP ABOUT HER CANTANKEROUS CO-STAR AND THEIR COMPLICATED HISTORY
The truth about the Golden Girls’ tumultuous friendship.
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. She’d flub a line, [lift her skirt] and say, ‘Wooo, sailor!’” show writer Barry Fanaro recalled at the Golden Girls: A Celebration of Friendship, Laughter and Cheesecake panel at the D23 Expo in Anaheim, Calif. But while Betty’s onset antics tickled the crowd, they left one co-star bristling. “You’d look at Bea [Arthur], and she was not happy,” Fanaro remembered.
Rumors of fights between Bea and Betty have persisted for decades. “Bea had a reserve. She was not that fond of me,” Betty says, 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 Closer, 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 Zimmerman, who is shopping around a gay take
“If you think we’re different on-screen, you should see us offscreen!”
on The Golden Girls, called Silver Foxes. “Dorothy didn’t have 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!” Zimmerman 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 Closer. “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 Copp, 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,” Jim Colucci, author of Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Biography, tells Closer. “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,” Colucci says, “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,” Colucci explains. “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 mom unhappy that in-between takes Betty would go and talk to the audience. It wasn’t jealousy. It was a focus thing,” Bea’s son Matthew Saks tells Closer. “My mom unknowingly carried the 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 real theater background,” Colucci notes of Betty’s passion for the medium, which Bea didn’t quite 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, now 95, has always made her career a priority, though, especially after the 1981 death of husband Allen Ludden. “Who, at 90, does a five-year series, Hot in Cleveland?” asks Copp. “She’s still popping up on TV shows and in films. She never remarried, so she just poured herself into work.”
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 Bea’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,” Copp insists. “They really did get along,” confirms Fanaro, 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, noting that the cast and crew taped two shows on Fridays with a meal in between. “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 Colucci says is “so interesting and symbolic: That even if they had different approaches to work, they really 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 mom would want to clear the air about her and Betty’s relationship if Bea were still around today. “Everyone knows life’s too short, and she’d probably look back and say those were good times,” Matthew says.
The fact that the show is still so wildly popular proves that whatever went on behind the scenes between Bea and Betty created pure magic on screen. For that, millions of fans remain grateful. “At the end of the day,” Zimmerman says of the characters and the legendary actresses who played them, “they came together over cheesecake and loved each other.” — Reporting by Amanda Champagne Meadows and Jaclyn Roth
“Bea, she seems so strong, [but] she’s a bowl of Jell-O come show night.”