Life on the set of “Golden Girls” wasn’t always a laughing matter.
The beloved sitcom, which introduced audiences to Southern belle Blanche Deveraux (Rue McClanahan) and her roommates Rose Nylund (Betty White), Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) and Dorothy’s mother Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) first premiered in 1985.
And director Lex Passaris can still recall how the show provided its stars much-needed humor to help them cope with private tragedies.
Passaris told Closer Weekly that during Season 1, both Arthur and White lost their mothers. The grief both women shared was so rough, many wondered if the series needed to be put on hiatus.
“We were ready to shut down the show for as long as they needed,” Passaris told Closer Weekly Wednesday. “But both ladies said, ‘No. We need to work.’”
And it wouldn’t be the only heartbreak White, in particular, would have to face. Passaris recalled filming the episode “The Heart Attack,” where the actress got candid about the real-life loss of her husband in character.
“Everyone thinks Estelle’s character Sophia is dying, so it was particularly poignant,” said Passaris. “Rose tells a story about her husband Charlie’s death, and Betty’s basically talking about Allen [Ludden]. Betty’s voice kind of cracked and she took a breath and said to me, ‘I’d give anything to have that year of my life back again.'"
Ludden, host of the “G.E. College Bowl” and “Password” television game shows, died in 1981 at age 62 from cancer. White, who was married to Ludden for 17 years, was at his bedside during his final moments.
White, now 96 and the last living Golden Girl, never remarried after Ludden’s death.
Arthur’s son, Matthew Saks, dismissed rumors that White’s sunny personality rubbed the fellow actress the wrong way, just like their characters Dorothy and Rose. In fact, Saks told the magazine the pair became close friends.
“Betty would pick my mom up in the driveway, or my mom would pick her up,” he insisted.
One source close to the cast told Closer Weekly that the two women weren’t the only ones to endure heartache while filming. McClanahan was also facing the end of her fifth marriage to high school boyfriend Tom Keel. Their relationship ended after one year in 1985.
“They confided in each other,” said the source about the women. “Rue was a great listener and a sympathetic shoulder. She had a sounding board in Betty as well.”
And Getty suffered her own private woes. Before McClanahan passed away in 2010, she claimed the actress battled crippling anxiety attacks while filming.
“She had an awful time remembering her lines because she would freeze and panic,” said McClanahan. “The day before tape day, you could see a big difference in her. She’d be walking around like Pig-Pen under a black cloud. By tape day, she was unreachable.”
Despite all the personal tragedies, “Golden Girls” easily managed to give its cast and audience plenty of laughter during its run between 1985 and 1992.
It racked up 68 Emmy nominations and 11 wins throughout its run. It’s listed as #69 on Deadline’s ranking of the “101 Best Written TV Series of All Time.”
In 2010, White told the Associated Press everyone knew the show was going to be something special when they first read the pilot.
“You get a lot of scripts mailed to you and not too many of them are good, but when this one came along it just hit the spot and they sent it to each of us,” she said at the time. “They sent it to me with the idea of me doing Blanche.
"Jay Sandrich, who was our director for most of the ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ shows, said if Betty plays another nymphomaniac they are going to think it is Sue Ann Nivens all over again. He said, why don't we switch them?”
White even revealed the women shared an immediate connection that lasted over the years.
“The first table read was an experience,” she said. “I had worked with Bea, I had done a couple of guest shots on ‘Maude.’ I had worked with Rue on ‘Mama's Family.’ Estelle was a new one to all of us. She came from New York after her hit. We all sat down for the first table read and somebody read a line and then somebody else read a line.
"... It was the most exciting ... We all began to look at each other because there wasn't any first reading feeling about it. It was like we had been working together forever. I still get goose bumps thinking about it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.