Before Betty White and Rue McClanahan were on TV eating cheesecake, living together in an apartment in Florida, and being all-around hilarious on “The Golden Girls,” the two stars appeared in another show together.
Before they were Rose and Blanche, White and McClanahan played Ellen Jackson and Frances Marie Crowley on the sitcom “Mama’s Family.”
White and McClanahan on ‘Mama’s Family’
McClanahan’s character was an uptight younger sister of Thelma Harper on the show. Her character was a reporter for a local newspaper. She was only on the show for the first two seasons and left partially because of her upcoming role on “The Golden Girls” and also because of dissatisfaction with her role. Her character was killed off by having her choke on a toothpick while in the bathroom at a local bar.
Betty White played Ellen Jackson on the show. She is the oldest of Thelma Crowley and Carl Harper’s three children. Her character was snobbish and conceited. She rivaled her siblings constantly.
“Mama’s Family” is a spin-off series based on the classic skits from “The Carol Burnett Show.” When the show went on hiatus after its first two seasons, both White and McClanahan took the opportunity to book their role on “The Golden Girls.” It would be a standout role in both of their careers.
The chemistry they had on “Mama’s Family” was evidence of future success together on “The Golden Girls.” When “Mama’s Family” came back for syndication, only Vicki Lawrence, Ken Berry, and Dorothy Lyman returned as original cast members.
Whole New Roles on ‘The Golden Girls’
When it came time to audition for “The Golden Girls,” White was originally going to play Blanche and McClanahan was going to be Rose.
According to MeTV, Jay Sandrich, the director, switched roles at the last minute. He thought that Betty White would be better equipped to play Rose because of her previous role as Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” He feared that if she was cast as Blanche, it would be far too similar to her previous role. He wanted the characters on “The Golden Girls” to be distinctive and new.
White had become known for her fun and promiscuous characters, but she was hesitant to be typecast. The last-minute switch was a million-dollar move.
The two both would grow to adore their roles on the show as well. In fact, Rue McClanahan had identified with Blanche as soon as she read the script and wanted that role. Her agent told her Betty White owned that part. The casting directors asked her to read for Blanche instead and fell in love with her interpretation.
In an interview with Television Academy from 2006, McClanahan admitted that White was probably least like her character. Meanwhile, she felt a certain connection to her own “The Golden Girls” character.
“Get serious. Just look at the facts. Blanche is a man-crazy, glamorous, extremely sexy, and successful with men, Southern belle from Atlanta, Georgia. I’m not from Atlanta,” McClanahan joked.