Estelle Getty: Matriarch of 'The Golden Girls'

As the wisecracking, tactless octogenarian Sophia Petrillo in the American sitcom The Golden Girls (1985-92), Estelle Getty found worldwide fame in her sixties after spending all her working life on the stage.

The tiny redhead, standing at less than 5ft tall, donned a white wig and make-up in order to age 20 years for the role; she was actually 15 months younger than Beatrice Arthur, the actress who played Sophia's divorced daughter, Dorothy, one of the four old women living together in Miami. Betty White played the dippy Rose and Rue McClanahan was the sex-mad Blanche, owner of the house.

The Sicily-born Sophia moved in after her retirement home was razed in a fire and was completely brazen in her sharp-tongued remarks – a trait attributed to the fact that she had previously suffered a stroke and could not control what she said. The result was that Getty had the best one-liners in the sitcom, and further comedy also came from the difference in stature between Getty and Arthur, who towered above her, but had to endure the put-downs. Getty won both a Golden Globe Best Actress award (1986) and an Emmy Outstanding Supporting Actress award (1988).

The character of Sophia had been an after-thought during the programme's development. When the writer, Susan Harris – who also created the popular sitcom Soap – submitted the idea for The Golden Girls to the television executive Michael Eisner, he told her he felt uneasy about the appeal of a programme simply about the relationship between three old women. But instead of adding a younger character, she created Sophia, forcing one of the trio to have to deal with her mother.

The Golden Girls was also the first American sitcom with an all-female starring line-up and, like Harris's groundbreaking previous series, it tackled taboo subjects such as compulsive gambling and homosexuality.

When Bea Arthur wanted to leave, Dorothy was married off and left for Atlanta. The three remaining characters were transplanted to a spin-off series, The Golden Palace (1992-93), in which they entered the hotel trade.

Getty was born Estelle Scher in New York in 1923, the daughter of Polish immigrants who ran a glass business. She sang, danced and acted as a child after seeing a vaudeville show at the age of four. On leaving Seward Park High School, she began to find work as a stand-up comedian in summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains and also acted in Yiddish theatre.

Following her marriage to Arthur Gettleman in 1947, Scher adopted the professional name Estelle Getty and continued to act in New York, often finding herself typecast in the kind of role which would eventually bring her small-screen success. "I've played mothers to heroes and mothers to zeros," Getty recalled in her 1988 autobiography, If I Knew Then What I know Now. . . So What? "I've played Irish mothers, Jewish mothers, Italian mothers, Southern mothers, New England mothers, mothers in plays by Neil Simon and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. I've played mothers to everyone but Attila the Hun."

Getty's big break came when she landed the role of Mrs Beckoff, the meddling mother of Harvey Fierstein's drag queen, in the actor-writer's hit Broadway play Torch Song Trilogy (Little Theatre, 1982-85), set in the International Stud nightclub.

When she moved from New York to Los Angeles for the West Coast production of the play, her agents encouraged her to seek screen roles in Hollywood. She said she would give it two months – and the part of Sophia in The Golden Girls was the result. She also played the character in episodes of the sitcoms Empty Nest (1988, 1991), Blossom (1991), Nurses (1993) and Ladies Man (2000), as well as in The Golden Palace.

A British version of The Golden Girls, The Brighton Belles, was launched by ITV in 1993 with a British cast, but failed to emulate the original's success, and was pulled from the schedules before completing its run.

Getty's few film appearances included playing the mothers of Sylvester Stallone in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) and Cher in Mask (1985). She was also in the films Tootsie (1982) and Stuart Little (as Grandma Estelle Little, 1999), and played Barry Manilow's mother in the TV movie Copacabana (1985). In 2000 the actress announced that she was suffering from Parkinson's disease and osteoporosis, and subsequently Alzheimer's disease, although she was later diagnosed as having Lewy body dementia.

Anthony Hayward

Estelle Scher (Estelle Getty), actress: born New York 25 July 1923; married 1947 Arthur Gettleman (died 2004; two sons); died Los Angeles, California 22 July 2008.