Actress Rue McClanahan died early this morning of a massive stroke. She was 76. A veteran television actress, she was best known for the bawdy retiree Blanche Devereaux she played on '80 sitcom The Golden Girls.
McClanahan started acting in New York in the '50s, working as a file clerk to make ends meet. In the '60s she made her Broadway debut in a production of Jimmy Shine starring Dustin Hoffman, which brought her to the attention of the casting agents at the soap Another World. From there she was cast as Vivian Harmon, the best friend of the title character in Maude and then as Aunt Fran on Mama's Family. She got to use her southern accent from that show and reunite with Maude herself, Bea Arthur, on The Golden Girls in the late '80s.
Playing Blanche earned McClanahan an Emmy in 1987. It was the role that she was always meant to play, brash, slutty, and not afraid to use her feminine wiles to get what she wants. Rue was much like this in real life. I only met her once a few years ago. I interviewed her to talk about her last role in the Logo television show Sordid Lives where she played the tough matriarch of a trashy Texas clan. Aside from talking about how thrilling it was to be acting so late in life, she also told stories about her Golden Girls castmates and off-color tales of her many husbands (some of which are in her autobiography My First Five Husbands). Sorry, most of them were off the record, but I can tell you that talking to her was an absolute blast. She was lively and engaging. Rue had that spark that marks a true entertainer, someone who loved having every eye in the place on her and knew how to keep it there.
Now Betty White, who is enjoying a career resurgence late, is the only member of The Golden Girls cast still alive. Estelle Getty died in 2008 and Bea Arthur passed last year. These deaths seem harder than when most actors of celebrities pass away. Maybe it's because the characters they played were close to the actresses' personalities, that we feel like we were so close to them. Their infamous theme song wasn't so much about the women's relationship to each other, but thanking us for being their friends and sharing in their adventures.
For younger people who grew up watching the sitcom—or discovering it in syndication, where it still lives today—these were like our surrogate grandmothers. Funny ladies who were at turns gentle, kind, funny, and daffy. Ones that lived a full life of friendship, dating, multicolored caftans, and lots and lots of cheesecake. Yeah, it was a TV show, but thanks to the wonderful actresses who inhabited the roles, it always felt like the real thing.
Here is some vintage Blanche, and laughing to these clips is just what Rue would have wanted today.