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Old 10-15-2018, 10:55 PM   #1
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TV Susan Harris Looks Back on "The Golden Girls"

As "Soap "ended its run, Harris continued to create shows at an impressive rate — I’m a Big Girl Now (1980–81), a starring vehicle for Soap’s Diana Canova; It Takes Two (1982–83); Hail to the Chief (1985), starring Patty Duke as the first female president — but she continued with her “creator-deserter” pattern.

“After Soap, I said I will never have this experience again, because I was exhausted.” But “never” came sooner than she expected, when her husband presented her with an idea she couldn’t refuse.

In 1985, Paul and Tony took a meeting at NBC. They were with [another] writer. Miami Vice was on, and [the network] said, “What about Miami Nice, a show about older women?” The writer said, “No, I’m not interested.” Paul said, “I think I might have someone who’s interested.

He came home, and I remember where the conversation took place — in the bathroom — and he said, “Honey, listen. What about…” I said, “No, Paul! I’m not — don’t do this to me!” He said, “It would be four older women.

Older appealed to me, because old people have stories and young people didn’t. It was always hard for me to write young people, but old people — there’s a richness that’s there. I said, “Old women?” He said, “Yes, old women.” I thought, “Okay, I could do that.

Well, by “old women,” NBC meant women in their 40s or 50s. I was thinking old. So we negotiated — we never pinned [their] ages down. We just found the women, and we had the most remarkable women.

I remember writing in the pilot [script] that Dorothy was “Bea Arthur-like,” and who did we get? [Laughs] We sent Tony to New York [to audition actors] and he called up and he said, “I’ve found Sophia. There’s just no question.

And Estelle Getty came in — it was a no-brainer. She had it. And when somebody like Betty White wanted to do it and was available, it was just gold. Betty read for Rue’s part, and Jay Sandrich, who was the director, said, “Betty’s done that before. On "Mary Tyler Moore, she was the slut. Let her read for the part of Rose.” And then we got Rue for Blanche.

To this day, Harris says the pilot, “The Engagement” — in which Blanche nearly marries a man who turns out to be a bigamist six times over — remains her favorite episode of The Golden Girls.

The pilot — and I say this as humbly as I possibly can — it was a perfect episode. You know how much you have to do in a pilot, besides tell a story in 23 minutes. You’ve got to introduce people that no one has seen before, give a bit of the backstories, establish their characters — much more goes into a pilot than any other episode.

It’s the hardest to pull off. [St. Elsewhere executive producer] Bruce Paltrow — I think we were at an affiliate screening — turned and said to us, “This is the perfect pilot.” And it was.

"The Golden Girls" was an instant smash, premiering at No. 1 with an estimated 44 million viewers. Fans loved the depiction of four mature women supporting one another while looking for love (yep, these grannies had sex, and plenty of it!) and living their best lives in Miami.

The friendship between Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia — and their regular heart-to-heart talks over cheesecake — became the standard to which all future TV quartets aspired.

I couldn’t believe [the ratings]. It was just stunning. I think people felt like you could have a family no matter who you were, at any stage in life. So there was hope in that show — that you didn’t have to be married, you could create your own family. These were four women who became a family.

Some [of the characters] were easier to write for than others. A few came more naturally, like Dorothy and Sophia. They were New York girls [like me], and they had that edge. It was a little bit more difficult to write for Rose and for Blanche, but it was an all-star cast. You just couldn’t get anybody better for any of those roles.

I always liked to write — in "Soap" and in "Golden Girls" — scenes that meant something. I never liked setups and jokes. I wanted there to be some reality to what I was writing. Sitting around eating cheesecake gave them the opportunity to talk about something. And that’s why it was so appealing.… You didn’t see people talking [on TV].

There were comparisons made later to "Sex and the City", and I fail to find the similarities there. These [Golden Girls] women had solid, real relationships; "Sex and the City" and "Designing Women" were something else.

As crazy as those women could be on "Golden Girls" — Rose with her stories and Sophia with her mouth — it was more grounded in reality than those other shows, which I thought conformed more to the situation-comedy formula.

Though much like SATC, "The Golden Girls" featured very memorable fashion.

Oh my God. [Covers her face] Oh my God. Bea — those outfits. They were horrible! Did I ask to have any of the wardrobe myself?

No. But listen, that was one of the last things I could pay attention to, what they looked like. It was more of “Okay, fine, whatever.

The Girls’ active sex lives sometimes raised red flags for NBC censors, but Harris recalls winning most of the battles.

Listen, it was so successful, we had a lot of leverage.… Paul and Tony said, “We’ll do the notes [meetings] with the network — go home and write.” Because I just had no patience with them. It was always somebody from corporate giving his opinion of what should happen, and I really had no use for it.

Way after [Golden Girls], I had a show called "The Secret Lives of Men". The network [representative] came down to give notes, and I said, “I refuse to take notes from somebody I drove in the car pool.” And it was true! She had gone to school [with my kids], and I drove the car pool. I said, “I’m not taking notes from her.

"The Golden Girls" spent six seasons in the top 10, then dropped to No. 30 in its seventh and final year. When Arthur chose not to renew for an eighth season, Harris & Co. tried to keep a version of the show going with a spin-off — The Golden Palace, in which Rose, Blanche, and Sophia ran a Miami hotel — but it was canceled after one season. (“It just didn’t work,” says Harris.)

"Girls" did spawn one successful spin-off: "Empty Nest", starring Soap’s Richard Mulligan as a widower living with his two adult daughters, which ran for seven seasons on NBC. Though TV is now flush with ’80s and ’90s reboots and revivals — "Murphy Brown", "Will & Grace", "Charmed", "Designing Women", "ALF", and "The Facts of Life" are all airing or in the works — Harris isn’t interested in revisiting any of her old shows (or creating new ones).

No. No. Uh-uh. Listen, they wanted us to do a "Golden Girls" musical and I said no. "Golden Girls" was what "Golden Girls" was — it was those women, and let’s leave it alone. It was iconic. Even if I were much younger, I wouldn’t do it.

And I don’t have any ideas for television shows or anything like that. I am fine not writing or even thinking about it. I really am.
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Old 01-29-2019, 08:57 PM   #2
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She was great at what she did.
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Old 01-29-2019, 10:58 PM   #3
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There's something in the family unit thing, especially for the elderly female viewer who may not see theirs often, be economically inactive or face discrimination in the workplace through ageism or misogyny. Was it also the last show where political correctness went out of the window at times, with jokes aimed at non-white immigrants and dwarfs, to name but two..
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Old 02-01-2019, 08:12 PM   #4
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This was a good little read. Interesting that Susan's all-time favorite episode is the pilot. It's like where do you go from there? Thanks JamesG.
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