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Harvey's Broadway Blog: Estelle Getty

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 Harvey Returns! Welcome to The Return of special new series on BroadwayWorld.com - four time Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein's personal MySpace blog about the journey of his new musical A Catered Affair and more. We'll be exclusively picking up Harvey Fierstein's blog as he shares his first hand reports from rehearsals to the upcoming closing night on July 27th and beyond.

I wrote the following about ESTELLE GETTY for today's edition of the NY POST but just in case you missed it...

At the height of "The Golden Girls" popularity, there was no more beloved character on television than Sophia Petrillo. Estelle Getty, who brought Sophia indelibly to life, was awestruck: "What the hell is going on? I have the highest TVQ of any woman on television?"

It was true. For several years, Estelle Getty, formerly Estelle Gettleman of Bayside, Queens, was the most popular, likable and bankable star on any network. She was bigger than Carol Burnett, more salable than Mary Tyler Moore, and surer to deliver viewers than Cher. Still, the day after she won the Emmy, she told me she'd trade it and her Golden Globe for a Tony.

Estelle Getty was, despite all of the glamour, glory and gold of television fame, a theater creature.

Along with her husband, Arthur, and friends Anne and Jules Weiss, she was a fixture at La Mama ETC and other Off-Off Broadway venues. Working as a bookkeeper by day, this semi-pro actress haunted the East Village by night supporting experimental theater.

In 1978 when we produced the first of the plays that would become "Torch Song Trilogy," Estelle chided me: "Listen, Mr Big Shot playwright. Why don't you write the role of your mother and I'll play it opposite you?"

Just picturing this 4-foot-8-inch fireball playing the mother of a 6-foot-tall drag queen made me giggle. The following year, when she came to see the second of the trilogy, she challenged me again and this time I took the bait. I went home and created Mrs. Beckoff for Estelle.

From the first reading through seven years of productions here and on the road, the marriage of actress to role was remarkable. There was simply nothing like seeing Arnold's front door open and this henna- wigged tornado dressed in a turquoise suit and carrying a raffia purse arrive onstage to announce, "I'm the mother."

So great was her performance that almost every audience member identified with my character. You read that right: Estelle's Mrs Beckoff was so identifiable that everyone claimed her as his or her mother. And if she were their mother, then they were a 6-foot drag queen. It was magic.

The thing about Estelle was that you could not catch her acting. She was being. If her character was supposed to be angry, Estelle got angry. If her character was broken hearted, the actress was broken hearted. On stage there was simply no deception. It all felt real.

Acting opposite her was an absolute pleasure and complete challenge. She demanded the same truth from the rest of us that she was delivering. And when we'd fool around onstage, as actors in long runs are apt to do, she would berate us, even hit us, and then join in the laugh.

Popular thinking is that by creating Mrs. Beckoff, I launched Estelle's career. But it is just as true that when Estelle inspired that character, she gave me mine.

Without the mother, "Torch Song Trilogy" would never have achieved its universal popularity and might not have reached further than La Mama. But with the mother the play was, and remains, a force not to be denied.

And so, hand in hand in hand, Estelle, Mrs Beckoff and I marched our way to Broadway and theater history.

Still, with Estelle's triumph in the show came disappointment, When the Tony Award nominations were announced for 1982, Estelle was somehow overlooked. We were all stunned. How could anyone who'd witnessed that performance overlook the achievement?

The only explanation I could muster was that she was so natural in the way she inhabited the role that people couldn't see how hard she was actually working. She made it all look effortless when it was anything but.

Estelle was dealt another blow four years later when she wasn't cast in the film version of "Torch Song." Although we never discussed it directly, I knew how much that hurt her. (Recently, I've come to know exactly how she felt — know what I mean?)

Estelle and I remained friends and supporters of each other's efforts for more than 30 years. I'm proud to say that her last professional job was voicing a character for my HBO family special, "The Sissy Duckling." I take comfort in knowing that the world will always have a part of her in those endless "Golden Girls" reruns.

But only the theater audiences who saw her onstage have any idea who we really lost this week.


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Harvey Fierstein is the author of Torch Song Trilogy, for which he received Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actor. He is also the (read more...)