Dorothy Petrillo was born in New York, New York, and was the daughter of Italian immigrants Sophia (Estelle Getty, who was actually a year younger than Arthur) and Salvadore Petrillo. Dorothy states in one episode that she is a Leo (born in July or August). In the season three episode, "Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself" (1987), Sophia says Dorothy was conceived in 1931, after Sophia's and Salvadore's first argument as newlyweds. In the show's final season in 1992, Dorothy's age is stated as 60.
Dorothy was nicknamed "Pussycat" by her mother, and "Spumoni Face" by her father. Dorothy has two younger siblings: brother Phil, a cross-dresser, who died later in the show's run; and a sister, Gloria, who was nicknamed "Kitten" and married into money, and with whom Dorothy was sometimes estranged. In the fourth-season episode Foreign Exchange, Dorothy wondered whether she is the biological daughter of the Petrillos, since Dominic and Philomena Bosco claimed that the hospital switched babies. However, in the third-season episode "Mother's Day," Sophia Petrillo's mother is also played by Bea Arthur, so it is implied that Dorothy and Sophia are biologically related (though in one episode Dorothy states that her grandmother was 94 when she was only 6, though it is never made clear if it is her paternal or maternal grandmother. However she also states that she was in a wheelchair, which her maternal grandmother was.). In that episode and three others which took place in Dorothy's young adulthood, Dorothy Zbornak was portrayed by a tall, dark-haired actress named Lynnie Greene. In the episode "Clinton Avenue Memoirs," Dorothy was shown as a young child (played by Jandi Swanson) jealous of the attention that her parents were giving to her baby brother Phil, until her father tells her that he loves her very much.
She was a "bookworm", and an over-achiever in high school. Yet, she suffered from low self-esteem, in part because one previous boyfriend was emotionally abusive, while another one supposedly stood her up on the night of her prom (he later returns as a character played by Hal Linden). In reality, he did show up, but was disrespectful toward Sophia, who did not like the way he was dressed or his attitude, and turned him away, without telling Dorothy. Dejected, she later accepted a date with Stanley Zbornak (Herb Edelman) because she "felt she couldn't do any better". She became pregnant while still in high school, resulting in a shotgun wedding to Stan possibly in 1946 (however, in the Season 5 episode titled "An Illegitimate Concern," Dorothy states that her wedding date was June 1, 1949). The marriage produced two children: Michael and Kate, who both appeared on the show.
Stan and Dorothy eventually moved to Miami, but divorced after 38 years when Stan fell for a stewardess named Chrissy and ran off to Maui with her. In the first-season episode "The Return of Dorothy's Ex," Stan mentions how they bought property together when honeymooning in Miami. Dorothy and Stan were frequently mentioned to have been married for 38 years at the time of their divorce, which occurred some time shortly before the show's 1985 premiere; However, in the episode "An Illegitimate Concern" Dorothy specifically mentions June 1, 1949 as her wedding date, making it impossible that she and Stan were married for 38 years. They would eventually make several attempts to reconcile, but never ultimately got back together.
Dorothy worked as a high school substitute teacher of English and American History (her major in college) for over thirty years. Her teaching career is important to her, since she learned French for an exam for her teaching position. When she was in college, she taught part-time at a school for the blind. She also taught a night-school course for adults wishing to complete their high school equivalency, including Rose Nylund. One of her former students hired her to teach business executives for his company, but they showed no interest in her teaching, and she realized that she liked teaching younger, impressionable students. Dorothy also had summer and part-time jobs, which included tutoring Mario (Mario Lopez) and working alongside Blanche at the museum. Rose Nylund's boyfriend helped her get a job as a writer for the television show that he starred in titled Mister Terrific Show, and she also appeared on the show's segment as a character named "Mrs. School Teacher" before she quit. She also acted with her mother in a pizza commercial, but it was aborted when Sophia tasted the pizza for the first time and hated it and walked out.
While often mocked as a manly and sexually unattractive woman by her two roommate friends and her mother due to her height, deep voice and somewhat severe features, Dorothy is also in possession of many talents. In one episode, she is able to upstage Blanche at the latter's favorite bar, the Rusty Anchor, with her singing, winning the admiration of Blanche's many suitors (this trait took advantage of Arthur's extensive singing and Off-Broadway stage experience). At another point, remembering how funny she could be in high school, Dorothy tries her hand at doing stand-up comedy, in the end winning over her audience by poking fun at her own life and bringing up such subjects as menopause with its hot flashes.
She is often very humble, and it is usually rare that she ever brags about herself. Dorothy can be comedically sarcastic, especially towards her less-than-sophisticated roommate, Rose, and man-obsessed Blanche. They can laugh at each other's remarks without hurt feelings, much of the time. Dorothy's mother Sophia has a tendency to "borrow" money from her, often without Dorothy's permission. Dorothy regards her roommates as family. She is very comforting and loving to them, giving them good advice. However, there are times when Rose and Blanche are scared of her, specifically when she gets angry. Blanche once reminded Rose of the time the latter had lost Dorothy's keys, to which Rose responded that Dorothy had "uprooted a mighty sequoia." When Blanche considered that she and Rose should defy Dorothy, she made a list of questions, such as "Can she intimidate us?" and several other possibilities. Rose replied, "Blanche, she can do all those things!" Dorothy, who had a no-nonsense personality, was quick to make sarcastic remarks if someone (especially Rose) made a dumb comment; this tension between Dorothy and Rose was a natural byproduct of Arthur's and White's real-life personalities, and the two often struggled to get along offscreen.
During the run of the show, it is implied that Dorothy is likely a Democrat due in part to her liberal views, although she never announces her party affiliation. She has a Michael Dukakis bumper sticker (covering a Walter Mondale bumper sticker) and planned to confront then-President George H.W. Bush when he visited Miami about his views on education, ignoring warnings from her mother and friends. When Bush did come, she was so shocked at actually meeting him that she couldn't say anything.
Dorothy is a very dedicated and strong-willed teacher, earning the nickname "Attila The Sub," which she loved. In one episode, she would not let her lazy student, a star athlete, play football in the school game, even after the school threatened and intimidated her. The student went ahead and played football anyway and broke his leg, and she visited him in the hospital to read him A Tale of Two Cities.
After her divorce from Stanley Zbornak, in which she kept her married surname, Dorothy Zbornak moved into a house in Miami, Florida, with widows Blanche Devereaux (owner / co-owner (all the girls decided that they should all own the house in one episode due to the building codes) of the house, played by Rue McClanahan) and Rose Nylund (Betty White). Shortly thereafter, Dorothy's mother, Sophia Petrillo, moved in after her nursing home, Shady Pines, burned down. This was a running gag during the show's run, where Sophia would often refer to Shady Pines as a prison, and Dorothy would defend it as a lovely retirement village. Other times, when Dorothy would become exasperated with her mother or try to get Sophia to listen to her, Dorothy would threaten "Shady Pines, Ma!", after which Sophia would immediately fall in line. Dorothy shared a unique relationship with her roommates, one often laced with her famously sardonic comments; the four shared a home for seven years, and in more than one episode it was pointed out that, despite a lack of blood ties, they were as much a family as any other household.
Dorothy and Stan had been married for 38 years, with the 'cause' of their marriage was the fact that Stan had gotten Dorothy pregnant late in their high school years. During the course of the show, Dorothy saw both of her children get married: Kate, to a podiatrist named Dennis, and Michael to a woman named Lorraine, a singer in his band, whom he had gotten pregnant. Lorraine was African American and several years older than Michael; this initially did not sit well with Dorothy because she felt Lorraine was far too old for Michael, quipping that Lorraine was nearly "twice" Michael's age, as Lorraine was 44 and Michael was 23. Lorraine's family, on the other hand, didn't want her to marry Michael because he was white. Kate's husband, Dennis, cheated on her at one point, but she ultimately forgave him, almost causing Dorothy and Kate to stop speaking (Dorothy believed Kate should not have taken Dennis back), but they also quickly reconciled. Lorraine left Michael later in the series, and there was no specific mention of his child with Lorraine (Dorothy's grandchild) thereafter. Before Lorraine, Michael had previously slept with Rose's daughter Bridget. Although it is mentioned that Dorothy did have grandchildren, it was never specified whether they were Michael's or Kate's children.
Like the other women living in the house, Dorothy had her fair share of romances, with her love life often coming into criticism by her mother. Ex-husband Stanley made regular attempts throughout the series to "win her back," and at one point nearly remarried Dorothy, though she called it off after Stanley and his lawyer, the famed Marvin Mitchelson, presented her with a pre-nuptial agreement to sign.
Some of Dorothy's suitors turned out to have less-than-virtuous characters. Elliot Clayton, a respected doctor, made a pass at Blanche, and when Blanche told Dorothy about it, Dorothy accused Blanche of making it all up, and wanting Elliot for herself. Blanche, deeply hurt that Dorothy would believe Elliot's word over hers, announced she was kicking Dorothy out of the house, and this would have ended their friendship for good had Rose not exposed Elliot for the liar he was on the day Dorothy was set to move out. During the battle, one of Dorothy's classic lines was: "It's not enough that you've had half of the men in Dade County, you have to have everyone else's men, it's PATHETIC!"
Yet another incident which put her at odds with Blanche was when she dated Stan's brother, Ted (McLean Stevenson). She was so angered that Blanche didn't want to see anyone but herself happy, she angrily told Blanche, "Blanche, have you seen the latest ad campaigns? Join the Navy, see the world, sleep with Blanche Devereaux; Join the Army, be all you can be, and sleep with Blanche Devereaux; the Marines are looking for a few good men who have NOT slept with Blanche Devereaux!"
Another suitor turned out to be a married man, Glen O'Brien (portrayed by Alex Rocco in the first season); Dorothy broke off the relationship when she remembered how much it had hurt to be cheated on by Stanley. She dated Glen again a few years later (this time portrayed by Jerry Orbach) when he was divorced, but she broke off with him again because she felt that the only reason he wanted to be with her was that he didn't like being divorced and alone. Yet another prospect, named Eddie (John Fiedler), was the best lover Dorothy ever had, but Dorothy broke up with Eddie as well because their relationship never progressed past the physical stage. Her high-school teacher, Mr. Malcolm Gordon (James T. Callahan), whom she'd had a crush on, came back into her life many years later, only to plagiarize and take credit for an article that she had written. Stan's brother, Ted Zbornak (McLean Stevenson), told her that he had had a crush on her since they were young. They then "spent the night" together, nearly destroying her friendship with Blanche, who had gone out with Ted earlier that night. Later, Ted asked Dorothy to baby-sit the children of a stewardess that he wanted to date (Dorothy was under the impression that Ted was going to ask her to marry him), making Dorothy feel humiliated. However, Dorothy got her revenge when she announced to everyone in the restaurant they were dining at that he was impotent.
A few other suitors were portrayed by well-known actors, including Dick Van Dyke and Leslie Nielsen. Leslie Nielsen played Lucas Hollingsworth, Blanche's uncle (her father's brother), whom Dorothy later married. Blanche was excited to hear that he was coming to visit her in Miami, but, because of a previous engagement (a supposedly very important tennis date), she pawned him off on Dorothy. The date was rather dull, and both Dorothy and Lucas were angered with Blanche for her inconsiderate attitude. To get even with her, Dorothy and Lucas decided to fake an engagement. They played it up for weeks, angering and annoying Blanche. However, during the ruse, Dorothy and Lucas fell in love for real, he proposed, and she accepted. Despite Stan's hope to derail the marriage, he took her to the church in style (in a limo), and although he wanted to say something, he didn't. With that, Dorothy moved to Hollingsworth Manor in Atlanta, and moved on with her life. At first, Sophia was to move with her, but she decided to remain in Miami with Blanche and Rose (they all later opened a hotel named The Golden Palace, and a spin-off was also named The Golden Palace).
In spite of her strengths, Dorothy does have phobias, namely hospitals and flying. She eventually manages to conquer these fears, however, with help from her friends.
The series showed a social awareness in various episodes. A two-part episode involved Dorothy suffering from extreme exhaustion, which was ultimately determined to be Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; Susan Harris, the show's co-writer, also suffered from the then largely unrecognized condition. In an earlier episode, Dorothy's lesbian friend, Jean (portrayed by former Miss America semifinalist Lois Nettleton), came to Miami for a visit and struck up a friendship with Rose, with whom Jean suspected she was falling in love. Dorothy was also shown to have a recurring gambling problem that eventually caused her to seek help through Gamblers Anonymous. She started smoking cigarettes again after quitting many years earlier, because of stress from her job and her mother's remarriage. Presumably, she was able to kick the habit, since she was not seen with a cigarette again.
In the episode Stan Takes A Wife, Dorothy states that she is a Leo during a conversation. This information, combined with her birth year of 1931, means that she is 54 when the first season begins and 61 when the final season of The Golden Girls goes off the air.
Dorothy also appeared in the two-part episode of The Golden Palace, "Seems Like Old Times"; she is revealed to still be married to Lucas, who does not appear, although Dorothy is shown speaking to him on the telephone. She appeared in one episode of Empty Nest, entitled Dumped, in which her favorite nephew Jim dumps Barbara (Kristy McNichol).
According to the episode Mary Has A Little Lamb, Dorothy's childhood nickname was "Moose."
Outside The Golden Girls, Dorothy appears in the Empty Nest episode "Dumped" and the two-part Golden Palace episode "Seems Like Old Times".
Elaine Stritch was reportedly considered for the role of Dorothy Zbornak while The Golden Girls was in development, under the assumption that Arthur (the series was originally conceived with "a Bea Arthur type" in mind) would not consider returning to a regular television series. As Stritch related in her show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, she "blew her audition". Rue McClanahan, who had been cast as Blanche and had co-starred with her on Maude, convinced Arthur to take the role. (Coincidentally, Stritch and Arthur had appeared together on the short-lived 1956 TV series Washington Square.)