The series revolves around four older, single women (three widows and one divorcée) sharing a house in Miami, Florida. The owner of the house is a widow named Blanche Devereaux (McClanahan), who was joined by fellow widow Rose Nylund (White) and divorcée Dorothy Zbornak (Arthur) after they both responded to a room-for-rent ad on the bulletin board of a local grocery store a year prior to the start of the series. In the pilot episode, the three were joined by Dorothy's 80-year-old mother, Sophia Petrillo (Getty), after the retirement home where she lived burned down.
The pilot episode featured a gay character named Coco (played by Charles Levin), who worked as a cook for the women, but the role was eliminated from the series before they began filming the first season. The writers observed that in many of the proposed scripts, the main interaction between the women occurred in the kitchen while preparing and eating food, and decided that a separate cook would distract from that friendship. In addition, the character of Sophia had originally been planned as an occasional guest star, but Estelle Getty had tested so strongly with preview audiences that the producers decided to make Sophia a regular character, which made Coco obsolete.
After six consecutive seasons in the top 10, and the seventh season at number 30, The Golden Girls came to an end when Bea Arthur chose to leave the series. In the hour-long series finale, which aired in May 1992, Dorothy meets and marries Blanche's Uncle Lucas (Leslie Nielsen), and moves to Hollingsworth Manor in Atlanta, Georgia. Sophia was to join her, but in the end, Sophia stays behind with the other women in Miami, leading into the spin-off series, The Golden Palace. The series finale was watched by 27.2 million viewers. As of 2016, it was the 17th-most watched television finale.Beatrice Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak, a substitute teacher: Born in Brooklyn, New York City, to Sicilian immigrants Sophia and Salvadore Petrillo, Dorothy became pregnant while still in high school, resulting in a marriage to Stanley Zbornak (Herb Edelman) to legitimize the baby. Stan and Dorothy eventually moved to Miami, but divorced after 38 years when Stan left her for a young flight attendant. The marriage produced children. According to the timeline presented, Dorothy and Stan would have had three children, with their oldest son or daughter near 40 by the beginning of the series. However, due to a lack of continuity in the writing, it is implied they had three children, but sometimes stated they only had two. Michael and Kate were repeatedly shown as being in their 20s during the run of the show, thus not being old enough to be the child with whom Dorothy got pregnant in high school. In the series' finale episode, Dorothy marries Blanche's uncle, Lucas Hollingsworth, and relocates to Atlanta. Arthur also played Dorothy's grandmother, Sophia's mother, in a flashback episode to when they lived in Brooklyn.
Betty White as Rose Nylund, a Norwegian American from the small farming town of St. Olaf, Minnesota: Known for her humorously peculiar stories of life growing up in her hometown, Rose was happily married to Charlie Nylund, with whom she had five children. Upon Charlie's death, she moved to Miami. She eventually found work at a grief counseling center, though she later ended up as the assistant to a consumer reporter (Enrique Mas) at a local TV station. In later seasons, Rose became romantically involved with college professor Miles Webber. During season six, Miles was placed into the Witness Protection Program, but returned later in the season. Their relationship continued throughout the series, and shortly into the sequel series, The Golden Palace. In season one, Rose is stated to be 55.
Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux, a Southern belle employed at an art museum: Born into a wealthy family, Blanche grew up as the apple of her father's eye on a plantation outside of Atlanta, Georgia, prior to her relocation to Miami, where she lived with her husband, George, until his death. Their marriage produced six children; four sons and two daughters. A widow, Blanche was portrayed as man-hungry, and she clearly had the most male admirers—and stories detailing various sexual encounters—over the course of the series.
Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo, Dorothy's mother: Born in Palermo, Sicily, Sophia moved to New York after fleeing an arranged marriage to Guido Spirelli. She later married Salvadore Petrillo, with whom she had three children: Dorothy, Gloria, and Phil, a cross-dresser, who later dies of a heart attack (episode "Ebbtide's Revenge"). Initially a resident in the Shady Pines Retirement Home after having a stroke prior to the start of the series, she moved in with Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy following a fire at the institution. During the series' run, Sophia married Max Weinstock, but they soon separated. Throughout the series, she held a few part-time jobs, mostly involving food, including fast-food worker and entrepreneur of spaghetti sauce and homemade sandwiches.
Herbert Edelman, as Stanley Zbornak, is Dorothy's cheating, freeloading ex-husband who first appears in the second episode of season one, and appears in 26 episodes total throughout the series. He also appears in a later episode of The Golden Palace, in which he fakes his death due to troubles with the Internal Revenue Service.
Harold Gould as Miles Webber (or Nicholas Carbone, Samuel Plankmaker) is Rose's professor boyfriend, who appears in 14 episodes, starting in season five. Gould also guest-starred in episode three in the first season as Arnie Peterson, Rose's first serious boyfriend after her husband Charlie's death. He also appears in two episodes of The Golden Palace.
Debra Engle, as Blanche's daughter Rebecca Devereaux, has a baby girl by artificial insemination and appears in three episodes (seasons five and six). Shawn Schepps played Rebecca in season three, when Rebecca returns from a modeling career in Paris, overweight and engaged to a verbally abusive man (Joe Regalbuto). She (Debra) also appears in the series finale of The Golden Palace, in which she is called upon by Blanche for an ovum.
Monte Markham as Blanche's brother Clayton Hollingsworth is in two episodes, first when he comes out in season four and later to introduce his boyfriend (Michael Ayr) in season six.
Sheree North as Virginia Hollingsworth Wylde, Blanche's sister, appears in two episodes, first in season one, then again in season five.
Sid Melton as Salvadore Petrillo, Sophia's late husband, is usually seen in dreams or flashback sequences; he appears in eight episodes. He also appears as Don the Fool, a waiter at a medieval restaurant in season six.
Nancy Walker as Angela Grisanti Vecchio is Dorothy's aunt and Sophia's sister, with whom Sophia frequently fought; she appears in two episodes in season two.
Bill Dana as Sophia's brother and Dorothy's uncle Angelo Grisanti appears in seven episodes (seasons three-seven). Dana also appears as Sophia's father in a season-four episode.
Doris Belack as Gloria Mayston, Dorothy's younger sister in season one, is married to a wealthy man in California and wants Sophia to move in with her. She later loses all of her money and returns in season seven for a two-part episode played by Dena Dietrich, and upsets Dorothy, as she becomes romantically involved with Dorothy's ex-husband, Stan.
Scott Jacoby as Dorothy's aimless musician son Michael Zbornak appears in three episodes from seasons two, four, and five.
Lynnie Greene (credited as Lynn Greene) as a younger Dorothy is in flashbacks in four episodes.
Steve Landesberg as Stan’s psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Halperin, appears in three episodes in season seven.
Ideas for a comedy series about older women emerged during the filming of a television special at NBC's Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California, in August 1984. Produced to introduce the network's 1984–85 season schedule, two actresses appearing on NBC shows, Selma Diamond of Night Court and Doris Roberts of Remington Steele, appeared in a skit promoting the upcoming show Miami Vice as Miami Nice, a parody about old people living in Miami. NBC senior vice president Warren Littlefield was among the executive producers in the audience who were amused by their performance, and he envisioned a series based on the geriatric humor the two were portraying.
Shortly afterward, he met with producers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas, who were pitching a show about a female lawyer. Though Littlefield nixed their idea, he asked if they would be interested in delivering a pilot script for Miami Nice instead. Their regular writer declined, so Witt asked his wife, Susan Harris, who had been planning to retire after the conclusion of their ABC series Soap. Fortunately, she found the concept interesting, as "it was a demographic that had never been addressed," and she soon began work on it. Though her vision of a sitcom about women in their 60s differed from NBC's request for a comedy about women around 40 years old, Littlefield was impressed when he received her pilot script and subsequently approved production of it. The Cosby Show director Jay Sandrich, who had previously worked with Harris, Witt, and Thomas on Soap, agreed to direct.
The pilot included a gay houseboy, Coco (Charles Levin), who lived with the girls. Levin had been suggested by then-NBC president Brandon Tartikoff based on Levin's groundbreaking portrayal of a recurring gay character, Eddie Gregg, on NBC's Emmy-winning drama Hill Street Blues. After the pilot, the character of Coco was eliminated from the series.
Hired to film the pilot, director Sandrich also became instrumental in the casting process for the series. Both Rue McClanahan and Betty White came into consideration as the series Mama's Family, in which the two co-starred, had been canceled by NBC. Originally, producers wanted to cast McClanahan as Rose and White as Blanche. The thinking for this was based on roles they previously played; White portrayed man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, while McClanahan co-starred as sweet but scatter-brained Vivian Harmon in Maude. Eager not to be typecast, they took the suggestion of Sandrich and switched roles last-minute.
Though Harris had created the character of Dorothy with a "Bea Arthur type" in mind, Littlefield and the producers initially envisioned actress Elaine Stritch for the part. Stritch's audition flopped, however, and under the impression that Arthur did not want to participate, Harris asked McClanahan if she could persuade Arthur, with whom she worked previously on the CBS sitcom Maude, to take the role. Arthur flipped upon reading the script, but felt hesitant about McClanahan's approach, as she did not "want to play (their Maude characters) Maude and Vivian meet Sue Ann Nivens." She reconsidered, however, after hearing that McClanahan and White had switched roles.
Estelle Getty, who was younger than both Bea Arthur and Betty White, was the last to be cast as the elderly mother of Arthur's character. Tony Thomas spotted her playing the mother role on Broadway in Torch Song Trilogy, and asked her to audition. Getty, who went through a three-hour transformation to become Sophia, wore heavy make-up, thick glasses, and a white wig to look the part. The character of Sophia was thought by the creators to enhance the idea that three retirement-aged women could be young. Disney's Michael Eisner explains, "Estelle Getty made our three women into girls. And that was, to me, what made it seem like it could be a contemporary, young show." As surprising as it may sound, Estelle Getty continuously battled her stage fright. During an interview in 1988, Getty commented on her phobia and expressed how working with major stars, such as Arthur and White, made her even more nervous. At times, she even froze on camera while filming.
Bea Arthur and Betty White were personally distant when not working. This never came across publicly in press, and both acted as consummate professionals on set, as each knew the importance of the other to the overall success of the show. It also did not dull the experience or the enjoyment of doing the show for either one. Betty White has always expressed nothing but love and admiration for Bea Arthur. Only after Arthur's death in 2009 did she reveal their differences were real and due to a fundamental personality clash, with Arthur becoming easily irritated by White's positive, perky demeanor.
The show was the second television series to be produced by the Walt Disney Company under the Touchstone Television label, and was subsequently distributed by Buena Vista International, Inc. (which holds as the ownership stake in Disney Channel Asia, now Disney–ABC Television Group).
Creator Susan Harris went on to contribute another four episodes to the first season, but became less involved with the sitcom throughout its run; she continued reading all scripts, though, and remained familiar with most of the storylines. Kathy Speer and Terry Grossman were the first head writers of the series and wrote for the show's first four seasons. As head writers, Speer and Grossman, along with Mort Nathan and Barry Fanaro, who won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing the first season, gave general ideas to lower staff writers, and personally wrote a handful of scripts each season.
In 1989, Marc Sotkin, previously a writer on Laverne & Shirley and a producer on fellow Witt/Thomas series It's a Living, assumed head-writing responsibilities, and guided the show (to varying degrees) during what were its final three seasons. Richard Vaczy and Tracy Gamble, previously writers on 227 and My Two Dads, also assumed the roles of producers and head writers. Beginning in 1990, Marc Cherry served as writer and producer, years before going on to create Desperate Housewives, which ran on ABC from 2004 to 2012. Mitchell Hurwitz also served as writer for the show in its last two seasons. Hurwitz later went on to create Arrested Development for Fox and later revived for Netflix.
The house's address was mentioned as being 6151 Richmond Street, Miami. The outside model used in the shots of the house in the series was part of the backstage studio tour ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios. This façade—along with the Empty Nest house—was among those destroyed in mid-2003, as Disney bulldozed the houses of "Residential Street" to make room for its "Lights, Motors, Action!" attraction. A hurricane that damaged the sets earlier also contributed to this decision. The façade is based on a real house in Brentwood, California, located at 245 N. Saltair Ave. and was used in the exterior shots during the first season of the show. Later, the producers built a new model at Walt Disney World in Florida.
The kitchen set seen on The Golden Girls was originally used on an earlier Witt/Thomas/Harris series, It Takes Two, which aired on ABC from 1982 to 1983. However, the exterior backdrop seen through the kitchen window changed from the view of Chicago high-rises to palm trees and bushes for the Miami setting.
The Golden Girls was shot on videotape in front of a live studio audience. Many episodes of the series followed a similar format or theme. For example, one or more of the women would become involved in some sort of problem, often involving other family members, men, or an ethical dilemma. At some point, they would gather around the kitchen table and discuss the problem, sometimes late at night and often while eating cheesecake or some other dessert. One of the other girls then told a story from her own life, which somehow related to the problem (though Rose occasionally regaled a nonsense story that had nothing to do with the situation, and Sophia told outrageous made-up stories). Some episodes featured flashbacks to previous episodes, flashbacks to events not shown in previous episodes, or to events that occurred before the series began. Though the writing was mostly comical, dramatic moments and sentimental endings were included in several episodes. One of the actresses on the show, Bea Arthur, actually hated cheesecake.
During the NBC upfronts, the preview screening of the show got a standing ovation. The show "immediately got a full 12 order".
An immediate runaway hit, The Golden Girls became an NBC staple on Saturday nights. The show was the anchor of NBC's Saturday line-up, and almost always won its time slot, as ABC and CBS struggled to find shows to compete against it, the most notable being ABC's Lucille Ball sitcom Life With Lucy in the beginning of the 1986–87 season. The Golden Girls was part of a series of Brandon Tartikoff shows that put an end to NBC's ratings slump, along with The Cosby Show, 227, Night Court, Miami Vice, and L.A. Law.
The show dealt with many topical issues, such as coming out and same-sex marriage, elder care and homelessness, AIDS and discrimination against people with HIV, US immigration policy, death and assisted suicide.
Writer and producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason created a sitcom with this kind of image as a "four women" show, which became the hit Designing Women that competed with The Golden Girls in rankings, but CBS pushed up to its Monday night line-up.
During its original run, The Golden Girls received 68 Emmy nominations, 11 Emmy awards, four Golden Globe Awards, and two Viewers for Quality Television awards. All the lead actresses won Emmy Awards for their performances on the show. The Golden Girls is one of four shows, along with All in the Family, The Simpsons, and Will & Grace, where all the principal actors have won at least one Emmy Award.
As a tribute to the success of The Golden Girls, all four actresses were later named Disney Legends.
In 1990, American syndicated reruns began airing, distributed by Buena Vista Television (now Disney-ABC Domestic Television), the syndication arm of Disney, whose Touchstone Television division produced the series.
In March 1997, the Lifetime cable network acquired the exclusive rights to repeat the episodes of The Golden Girls in the US for over a decade, until March 1, 2009. The last episode aired on Lifetime, February 27, 2009. Many episodes were edited to allow more commercials and for content. The Hallmark Channel and WE tv began airing re-edited episodes of The Golden Girls in March 2009. As of February 2013, We TV's rights expired and Viacom networks' TV Land, home to Betty White's last series Hot in Cleveland, purchased them and Logo TV. It currently airs on the Hallmark Channel.
In Australia, the show airs every day on Fox Classics.
In Canada, CanWest's digital specialty channel, DejaView, airs reruns of The Golden Girls.
In Southeast Asia, Rewind Networks began airing reruns of The Golden Girls on its HD channel, HITS, in 2013.
Every episode of The Golden Girls was made available to stream on Hulu on February 13, 2017.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment has released all seven seasons of The Golden Girls on DVD in Region 1 and Region 4 with the first four being released in Region 2. On November 9, 2010, the studio released a complete series box set titled The Golden Girls: 25th Anniversary Complete Collection. The 21-disc collection features all 180 episodes of the series as well as all special features contained on the previously released season sets; it is encased in special collectible packaging, a replica of Sophia's purse. On November 15, 2005, Warner Home Video released The Golden Girls: A Lifetime Intimate Portrait Series on DVD which contains a separate biography of Arthur, White, McClanahan and Getty, revealing each woman's background, rise to stardom and private life, which originally aired on Lifetime network.
Upon the success of The Golden Girls creator Susan Harris later devised Empty Nest as a spin-off from The Golden Girls with some character crossovers. Nurses was later spun off from Empty Nest, and the shows occasionally had special episodes in which characters from one show made appearances in the others.
After the original series ended, White, McClanahan, and Getty reprised their characters in the CBS series The Golden Palace, which ran from September 1992 to May 1993, and also starred Cheech Marin and Don Cheadle (Bea Arthur guest-starred once, reprising her role as Dorothy). The show never approached the popularity or acclaim of the original, and ranked 57th in the annual ratings. Reportedly, a second season was approved before being canceled the day before the network announced its fall schedule.
Lifetime, which held the rights to The Golden Girls at the time, aired reruns of The Golden Palace in the summer of 2005, and again in December of that year. This was the first time since 1993 that The Golden Palace was seen on American television. Until April 2006, Lifetime played the series as a virtual season eight, airing the series in between the conclusion of the final season and the syndicated roll-over to season one.
Capitalizing on the popularity of The Golden Girls, creator Susan Harris decided to develop a spin-off, centering on the empty nest syndrome. The initial pilot was aired as the 1987 Golden Girls episode "Empty Nests" and starred Paul Dooley and Rita Moreno as George and Renee Corliss, a married couple living next to the Golden Girls characters, who face empty nest syndrome after their three adult daughters moved out. When that idea was not well received, Harris retooled the series as a vehicle for Richard Mulligan, and the following year Empty Nest debuted, starring Mulligan as pediatrician Harry Weston, a widower whose two adult daughters moved back home. Characters from both shows made occasional guest appearances on the other show, with the four girls guesting on Empty Nest and Mulligan, Dinah Manoff, Kristy McNichol, David Leisure, and Park Overall appearing on The Golden Girls in their Empty Nest roles. After the end of The Golden Palace, Getty joined the cast of Empty Nest, making frequent appearances as Sophia in the show's final two seasons.
Mulligan and Manoff were alumni from one of Susan Harris' earlier shows, Soap.
Empty Nest launched its own spin-off in 1991 set in Miami in the same hospital where Dr. Weston worked. The series starred Stephanie Hodge and a set of other young female and male nurses and follows their daily slumbers during worktime. As one of the few times in television history that three shows from the same producer, set in the same city, aired back-to-back-to-back on a single network in the same night, the three shows occasionally took advantage of their unique circumstances to create storylines that carried through all three series, such as "Hurricane Saturday". Starring actress Hodge left the show after two seasons. David Rasche joined the cast at the start of the second season and Loni Anderson was added as the new hospital administrator for the third season.
The Golden Girls: Live! was an off-Broadway show that opened in the summer of 2003 in New York City at Rose's Turn theater in the West Village, and ran until November of that year. The production ended because the producers failed to secure the rights and received a cease and desist order by the creators of the original television show. Featuring an all-male cast in drag, The Golden Girls: Live! consisted of two back-to-back episodes of the sitcom: "Break-In" (season one1, episode eight) and "Isn't It Romantic?" (season two, episode five).Chile: Los Años Dorados: In 2015 a Chilean remake called Los Años Dorados (The Golden Years) was produced by UCVTV in agreement with Disney, starring famous Chilean actresses Gloria Münchmeyer, Carmen Barros, Ana Reeves, and Consuelo Holzapfel, who live their retirement in the city of Viña del Mar. It was a success for the channel, so there are plans to do the second season in 2016.
Greece: Chrysa Koritsia: In 2008, Greek broadcaster ET1 premiered a Greek remake entitled Chrysa Koritsia (Greek: Xρυσά κορίτσια, Gold[en] Girls), which features the four women in Greece. Each of the characters has been hellenized to suit the culture and modern setting. Names were only slightly changed, but more for cultural reasons, as Sophia (whose first name was unchanged, as it is Greek), Bela (Blanche), Dora (Dorothy), Fifi (Rose), and Panos (Stan). The series began airing in mid-January, and features many similar plots to the original. ET1 aired a rerun of the show in the summer of 2008 and managed to take a place in the top-10 ratings chart, presented by AGB Nielsen Media Research. The Greek edition features Mirka Papakonstantinou as Dora, Dina Konsta as Sofia, Eleni Gerasimidou as Fifi, and Ivonni Maltezou as Bela.
Netherlands: Golden Girls: A Dutch remake for the RTL 4 network stars Loes Luca as Barbara (Blanche), Beppie Melissen as Els (Dorothy), Cecile Heuer as Milly (Rose), and Pleuni Touw as Toos (Sophia). The show premiered in fall 2012, using essentially the same plots as the U.S. version, along with a Dutch-language version of the original theme song, "Thank You for Being a Friend".
Philippines: 50 Carats, O Di Ba? A Philippine version of The Golden Girls (spin-off) aired during the early '90's by IBC 13 starred Nida Blanca, Charito Solis, and Gloria Romero.
Russia: Bolshie Devochki: A Russian remake was broadcast in 2006, entitled Bolshie Devochki (Russian: Большие Девочки), which in English can literally be translated to: Big Girls. The series featured renowned Russian actresses Galina Petrova as Irina (Dorothy), Olga Ostroumova as Nadejda (Blanche), Valentina Telechkina as Margarita (Rose), and Elena Millioti as Sofya (Sophia). However, the concept never caught on with the Russian viewers and the show was canceled after only 32 episodes.
Spain: Juntas pero no revueltas/Las chicas de oro: In 1996, TVE launched a Spanish remake entitled Juntas pero no revueltas (Together, but not mixed) with Mercedes Sampietro as Julia (Dorothy), Mónica Randall as Nuri (Blanche), Kiti Manver as Rosa (Rose), and Amparo Baró as Benigna (Sophia). Low ratings made it disappear after one season. In 2010, another remake with the title Las chicas de oro (The Golden Girls) was announced, again on TVE, this time produced by José Luis Moreno and with Concha Velasco as Doroti (Dorothy), Carmen Maura as Rosa (Rose), Lola Herrera as Blanca (Blanche), and Alicia Hermida as Sofía (Sophia). The series premiered on September 13, 2010 with success. However, after only 26 episodes, the series was eventually discontinued after the end of the first season after receiving generally bad reviews and following dropping ratings.
United Kingdom: The Brighton Belles: In 1993, ITV premiered Brighton Belles, a British version of the American sitcom. The show, starring Sheila Hancock, Wendy Craig, Sheila Gish, and Jean Boht was nearly identical to Girls except for character name changes and actor portrayals. The 10-episode series was canceled after six weeks due to low ratings, with the final four episodes airing more than a year later.
In 2017 a Golden Girls themed eatery "Rue La Rue Cafe" owned by Rue McLanahan's close friend Michael La Rue, who inherited many of the star's personal belonging and in turn decorated the restaurant with them, opened in the Washington Heights section of the New York City borough of Manhattan.