Rue McClanahan: Man-mad Blanche Devereaux in 'The Golden Girls'

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The Independent Online

Worldwide fame came to the American actress Rue McClanahan when she played Blanche Devereaux, a nymphomaniacal Southern belle living out her twilight years in Miami with three other women, in the groundbreaking American television sitcom The Golden Girls (1985-92).

The man-mad merry widow, who took mouth-to-mouth resuscitation classes because she liked kissing, owned the house they shared. She was joined by the acid-tongued divorcée Dorothy (played by Bea Arthur), the dippy but lovable widow Rose (Betty White) and Dorothy's outspoken mother, Sophia (Estelle Getty).

Susan Harris, who created The Golden Girls, previously wrote scripts for the sitcom Maude (1972-78), starring Arthur in the title role of a four times-married feminist and liberal, with McClanahan as her unliberated friend and neighbour, Vivian Harmon, in the New York suburbs. Like Maude, The Golden Girls tackled taboo subjects such as gambling and homosexuality. It was the first American television series to boast an all-female starring cast.

The comedy came from the banter and, sometimes acerbic, wit among the four women, as well as the poignancy of the relationships. Blanche was forever looking for a man, but she never found lasting love and had to settle, perhaps reluctantly, for friendship with her housemates.

"I think she has an attitude toward women that's competitive," said McClanahan of her character. "She is friends with Dorothy and Rose, but if she has enough provocation she becomes competitive with them. I think, basically, she's insecure."

The actor was born Eddi-Rue McClanahan in Healdton, Oklahoma, in 1934, to a building contractor and a beautician. By her final year at Ardmore High School, she was running a dance school. After gaining a degree in German and theatre arts from the University of Tulsa, McClanahan moved to New York City, where she trained as an actor with Uta Hagen and Perry Mansfield, and shortened her first name to Rue.

Her professional stage debut came with the role of Rachel in Inherit the Wind, at the Erie Playhouse, Philadelphia (1957), where she met her first husband, the actor Tom Bish. However, the marriage ended soon after the birth of their son, Mark, and McClanahan opened her own acting and dance school in Ardmore.

Later, she returned to New York City and, in 1964, made her Broadway debut as Hazel in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Players Theatre). Her other Broadway roles included Sally Weber in the musical Jimmy Shine (Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 1968-9), starring Dustin Hoffman.

On television, McClanahan was cast as the villainous Caroline Johnson (1970-71) in the daytime serial Another World. A second soap opera role, as Margaret Jardin (1971-72), followed in Where the Heart Is. Then came the part of the scatterbrained Vivian in Maude, offered to the actor by the producer Norman Lear, who had spotted her as the mistress Faye Precious in the off-Broadway stage play Who's Happy Now? (Village South Theatre, 1969), a performance that won her an Obie award.

McClanahan had another regular television role, as the uptight spinster Aunt Fran, in Mama's Family (1983-84), until the programme – which also featured Betty White – was cancelled, although it later returned, with cast changes.

In the meantime, the two actresses were auditioned for The Golden Girls, with McClanahan reading for the role of Rose and White for Blanche – but, on hearing them, the director switched them round. McClanahan won an Emmy Award as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (1987). In 1992, Bea Arthur announced that she was leaving, so McClanahan, White and Estelle Getty were spun off into the short-lived series The Golden Palace, with their characters running a Miami Beach hotel.

McLanahan continued to appear on television, with guest roles in programmes such as Murphy Brown (1997), Columbo (1998) and Law & Order (2009). She was also a regular in Sordid Lives: The Series (2008), playing the matriarch Peggy Ingram who gives refuge to a bar singer and arsonist released from prison, a character played by Olivia Newton-John.

Although she was best known on television, McClanahan's film roles included Nancy Stringer in the romantic comedy musical The Fighting Temptations (2003), alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr and Beyoncé Knowles.

Having survived a 1997 diagnosis of breast cancer, McClanahan underwent triple-bypass heart surgery last year. She suffered a minor stroke while recovering and eventually died from another stroke and a brain haemorrhage.

The six times-married actress's autobiography, My First Five Husbands... and the Ones Who Got Away, was published in 2007.

Eddi-Rue McClanahan, actress: born Healdton, Oklahoma 21 February 1934; married 1958 Tom Bish (divorced 1959; one son), 1959 Norman Hartweg (divorced 1961), 1964 Peter D'Maio (divorced 1971), 1976 Gus Fisher (divorced 1978), 1985 Tom Keel (divorced 1986), 1997 Morrow Wilson; died New York City 3 June 2010.