TV URBAN LEGEND: The Golden Girls spun out of a joke at an NBC function introducing network’s 1984-85 lineup.
Few shows were quite as surprising of a hit as The Golden Girls, which aired from 1986-1992 and starred sitcom veterans Bea Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty, a longtime community-theater actress who had only recently received her breakout role in the hit play The Torch Song Trilogy (Getty shockingly was more than a year younger than Arthur, who played her daughter; wigs and makeup can do wonders).
The comedy, which centered on four older women who share a Miami home, was a success, anchoring NBC's Saturday night lineup for years; it was a top 10 show in the Nielson ratings its first six seasons. The show was remarkably progressive for the era (following in the footsteps of Arthur and McClanahan's previous series Maude), dealing with social issues ranging from gay rights to the plight of the homeless to discrimination against people living with HIV. It was also a critical smash, winning Emmys for every member of the main cast (Getty won Best Supporting Actress for the show's third season, and the other three each won for Best Lead Actress in the show's first three seasons). The show also spun off the hit Empty Nest (in an indirect manner, as I detailed in an old TV Legend). It's surprising, in an industry that tends to devalue older performers, that a show starring women in their 50s and 60s would be greenlit, let alone become a hit. Naturally, then, the origins of The Golden Girls are strange. The show, you see, began as a joke.
I’m sure most readers are familiar with network upfronts, but just in case: Upfronts are the presentations television networks make in May revealing what their schedules will look like in the fall. This gives companies time to decide which shows they want to advertise on, and then pay their advertising money "up front" (which is cheaper than buying after the show becomes a hit). As you would imagine, networks try to make their new shows look as appealing as possible to garner as much ad money as they can. As a result, the upfronts tend to be a star-studded affair, with all the biggest actors there to glad-hand advertisers.
In May 1984, the NBC upfronts were no different: The biggest show on its fall lineup was the slick police drama Miami Vice (which did, in fact, turn out to be a major hit). NBC was doing an all-star special, and one of the skits featured two of the network’s older actresses, Doris Roberts (from Remington Steele) and Selma Diamond (from Night Court, which had just recently debuted as a midseason replacement). The skit revolved around Diamond mishearing the name of NBC's new show as "Miami Nice,” joking that the show must be about a bunch of old people in Miami playing pinochle. The skit got a big laugh, particularly from network executives, who also thought, "Hey, there might be an actual show there" (specifically Warren Littlefield, senior vice president for NBC entertainment under Brandon Tartikoff).
A few weeks later, two TV producers, Paul Witt and Tony Thomas, were pitching Littlefield on a series about a young female lawyer. Littlefield turned them down, but he asked them to pitch him on "Miami Nice" instead. Witt was incredulous, but Littlefield insisted he was serious about the concept, so Witt went back to his wife, fellow writer Susan Harris (who presumably was going to be a writer for the proposed female lawyer show) with the idea, and she wrote up a pilot script. Littlefield loved it. The show debuted the following year, and the rest is television history.
The legend is ...
Thanks to Jon Anderson of the Chicago Tribune and Nicholas Fonseca of Entertainment Weekly (working 24 years apart) and Susan Harris for the information!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!