She's bawdy, sassy, meddlesome, endearing and deadpan funny. She's been a mother to just about every actor in Hollywood: Cher (Mask, 1985), Barry Manilow (Copacabana, 1985), and Sylvester Stallone (Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot ). She was Mrs. Beckoff, the mother of Arnold Beckoff, in Broadway's Tony Award-winning Torch Song Trilogy. This perpetual mom writes in her autobiography, If I Knew Then What I Know Now...So What? (Contemporary Books, 1988), "I've played mothers to heroes and mothers to zeroes. I've played Irish mothers, Jewish mothers, Italian mothers, Southern mothers, mothers in plays by Neil Simon and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. I've played mother to everyone but Attila the Hun."
She's Estelle Getty, also known and adored by many as Sophia Petrillo, the feisty, sharp-tongued octogenarian mother from television's Golden Girls, Golden Palace and Empty Nest. The vast quantity of fan mail that Getty receives is tribute to her widespread appeal. Surprisingly, kids are some of her biggest admirers. "I think they look upon me as an old child, because I'm so little," says Getty. "But they love the fact that I talk back to Dorothy" (portrayed by Bea Arthur).
Under five feet tall, Getty is a giant in the heart department. She stays involved in many causes, particularly AIDs, and is a spokesperson for Alternative Living for the Aging, a nonprofit organization that locates cooperative housing for seniors.
She identifies with the underdogs in life, having experienced discrimination against her height, and now to some extent, her age. "Being tiny has been difficult for me in a business that regarded physicality as the most important part of your life," says Getty. "And I always had to fight against the fact that I could do things even though I was small. And eventually I proved to them I could play mother to six footers."
Hollywood's stereotyping of older people is beginning to change, Getty claims, and she credits Golden Girls for some of that. "Before [Golden Girls ], every single older person was a mother or a grandmother. Now there are neighbors, secretaries and people who have jobs who are older people. You see roles they've never been allowed in before."