Estelle Getty was born Estelle Scher on July 25, 1923 to Sarah and Charles Scher, the owner of a glass store, in New York City. Her parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants. Her father was employed in the glass business. She had a sister, Roslyn, and a brother, David. Getty got her start in the Yiddish theater and also as a comedian in the Catskills borscht belt resorts.
Getty played the mother of Harvey Fierstein's character in the original Broadway run of Torch Song Trilogy.
Getty is best known for her role as Sophia Petrillo on the popular 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls. Her character was the Sicilian mother of Dorothy Zbornak, played by Beatrice Arthur, although Getty was, in fact, one year younger than Arthur. In 1988, the role earned Getty the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress.
During her time on The Golden Girls, Getty, along with Steve Delsohn, co-wrote an autobiography entitled If I Knew Then, What I Know Now... So What? (Contemporary Books, 1988). She further capitalized on her success by releasing an exercise video for senior citizens in 1993.
In 1992, following her seven-season role on The Golden Girls, Getty, with Betty White and Rue McClanahan returned as their characters Sophia Petrillo, Rose Nylund and Blanche Devereaux respectively, in the spin-off series, The Golden Palace. The new show saw the three remaining cast members from the original series invest in a Miami hotel. The series was cancelled after just one season. Getty reprised her role of Sophia once again for a guest appearance in Nurses, and for the final time when she joined Empty Nest, another spin-off series from The Golden Girls. She appeared in the series for the final two seasons.
Getty made numerous guest appearances on a diverse variety of popular television series, including Fantasy Island, Cagney & Lacey, Blossom, Touched by an Angel, Mad About You and The Nanny. Her numerous film roles include Tootsie, Mask and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, alongside Sylvester Stallone, which earned her a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress.
Getty attended Seward Park High School in New York City.
She was married to Arthur Gettleman (whose name she adapted into her stage name) from December 21, 1947 until his death in 2004. The couple had two sons: Carl Gettleman, who lives in California, and Barry Gettleman, who lives in Florida.
In 1991, as later reported in Star magazine, Getty helped to nurse her 29-year-old nephew Steven Scher, who was near death and suffering from the final stages of AIDS. Because Scher's parents lived in England and his friends were no longer able to care for him in Greensboro, North Carolina, Getty had him flown to California and admitted to hospice care. He died in January 1992.
In 2000, Getty stopped making public appearances after revealing she had Parkinson's disease and osteoporosis. In 2002, media reports claimed she was also suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Doctors later discovered she actually had Lewy body dementia. Both the Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diagnoses were incorrect. Golden Girls cast members who attempted to talk to her on the phone or in person found that she couldn't remember them, or anything about the show. Bea Arthur said that even during production of the series, Getty had so much trouble remembering her lines that they should have known something was wrong from the beginning.
In 2003, Lifetime television hosted a Golden Girls reunion, The Golden Girls: Their Greatest Moments. In 2008, the show was awarded the Pop Culture award at the Sixth Annual TV Land Awards. Getty did not participate in either project due to declining health.
Getty died of Dementia with Lewy bodies on July 22, 2008, three days before her 85th birthday. She is interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.1986 – Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series – The Golden Girls – (Nominated)
1987 – Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series – The Golden Girls – (Nominated)
1988 – Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series – The Golden Girls – (Won)
1989 – Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series – The Golden Girls – (Nominated)
1990 – Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series – The Golden Girls – (Nominated)
1991 – Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series – The Golden Girls – (Nominated)
1992 – Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series – The Golden Girls – (Nominated)
1985 – Actress in a Leading Role – Musical or Comedy Series – The Golden Girls – (Won)
1986 – Actress in a Leading Role – Musical or Comedy Series – The Golden Girls – (Nominated)
1991 – Actress in a Supporting Role – Series, Mini-Series or Television Movie – The Golden Girls – (Nominated)
1982 – Drama Desk Award Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play – Torch Song Trilogy – (Nominated)
1985 – Helen Hayes Award Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Touring Production – Torch Song Trilogy – (Won)