Remembering Betty White With Stan Zimmerman

Written by | Entertainment

Stan Zimmerman’s first big gig as a fresh newbie in the biz, was writing for Season 1 of The Golden Girls. While cutting his teeth on what would become one of the most iconic televisions show in history, he would have the opportunity to see the Emmy-winning leads work their craft. His memories of the read throughs, the episode tapings, and the styles of Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Rue McLanahan, and Betty White are forever etched in his mind. For Stan, losing Betty White wasn’t just about saying goodbye to the Golden Girls legacy, it was about losing a true professional in the industry.

My first introduction to Betty White was her appearances on her husband, Alan Ludden’s, game show, Password. She was always so funny and quick with a quip. And wickedly smart. Also, you could tell they really enjoyed being around each other. (Much different from my parents’ interactions.)

Betty White was a touchstone for audiences worldwide. For eight decades, she would be in our homes – a part of our everyday lives. She became like a member of our families. But luckily without all the baggage. And it is so amazing that at 99 years old, we still wanted more of her. She somehow made us believe she would live forever.

No matter the time of day, Golden Girls is playing on one station or another. Young generations are learning the one-liners and bonding with the characters. Older generations who grew up watching Golden Girls are falling in love all over again as fans find a little bit of each “Girl” in them.

It has been a wild ride watching new generations discover Golden Girls. It still speaks to audiences because at the end of the day it is flippin’ funny. The producers asked us to create real stories, but not in a “Facts of Life special episode” kind of way. Honest, but never to forget the funny. And when you have (creator) Susan Harris’ brilliant creation of those four characters, played by those four actors, it is comedy gold.

Die-hard fans know that Betty White was originally picked for the role of Blanche. A complete departure from any role she’d play in the past, the director wanted to try something different. He asked White to read for Rose. And the rest is comedy history. She may have been a little naïve, but Rose had a unique wisdom and lots of heart.

People responded to Rose’s innocence and rooted for Rose. She loves life and is honestly curious about the world. And she is so good natured – just like Betty. Also, audiences wanted to protect her from getting eaten alive by the sharp tongues of Dorothy, Blanche and especially Sophia.

When we saw in the pilot that Rose liked to tell long stories, we jumped on that. Then we had the other characters kid her about that. I remember sitting around the writers’ room when we decided we should name her hometown. A lot of suggestions were thrown around. We landed on St. Olaf, which went on to have a life of its own.

If you’ve seen some of the bloopers and outtakes from the Golden Girls vault, you can see Betty White playing with the audience. Her lifelong desire to connect with people (and animals) would become her brand.

I have never seen an actor connect with a studio audience more than I did with Betty. In between takes, she would talk to them, joke with them, even flirt. That was so different from Bea Arthur’s style. Bea wanted to stay in character. Betty could turn it on or off more easily. Supposedly, that got under Bea’s skin.

Stan’s debut episode would feature Betty heavily. Writers would pitch their ideas quickly, and after a series of “no’s” Stan and his writing partner, James Berg, were leaving the room when Stan threw out the idea of Rose’s mother coming to visit. The producers loved the idea and gave it the green light.

“Rose’s Mother” episode is also known as “Blanche & the Younger Man.” We had it changed to for two reasons. One, we got the writing gig by initially pitching a story about Rose’s mother coming to visit. And two, to be quite honest, we did not think anyone would vote for an Emmy with the title of “Blanche & the Younger Man.” They didn’t vote for either title, so what do I know? Although we did get a WGA nomination for Best Episodic Writing of Comedy. It was our first major Hollywood event and our agents told us to bring a woman as our date. They put us at a table right in front of the presenter’s podium. So naturally, I thought we won. All four Golden Girls presented that evening. But we lost. I was so nervous all evening, I couldn’t eat. I don’t think I could have formed words for an acceptance speech anyway.

My favorite line is not a line Betty said but was in a beautifully touching scene with Rose and her mother Alma, played by Jeanette Nolan. Her mom says, “Stopping me from living, isn’t going to stop me from dying.” I love that whole scene, but especially Betty’s poignant response.

What was it like hearing Betty White read his script for the first time?

It was completely terrifying to be at our first table read. Not just because four comedy icons were going to be reading our first script for the show, but also the producers and staff had worked on so many iconic TV series. Arriving at Sunset/Gower for that reading, you could feel the pressure in the rehearsal room. I later learned that Bea was concerned about the age of the writers. Meaning me and my writing partner, James Berg. We looked even younger than we were. She did not see how we would be able to write for mature characters, especially women characters. The script got a lot of laughs at that table. And there were also some very heartfelt, tender moments as well. Even Bea cracked a smile. We could finally breathe. But not for long, because they wanted us to write another episode, which ended up being “Adult Education.”

Years later, his relationship with Betty White and this episode would come full circle.

The last time I saw Betty was in 2014. I got to spend two weeks with her as I shadowed the director on Hot in Cleveland for a couple of episodes. The producer of the series, Todd Milliner, was also on the board of Celebration Theatre, the longest running LGBTQ theatre company in the United States. They wanted to have a benefit for the theatre with the cast of HIC reading a Golden Girls script. He asked me if I had any suggestions of which they should use? I snapped back, “Are you nuts?! You have to do one of mine, like ‘Blanche & the Younger Man’.” It was a night I did not want to end. And the weird thing is, Betty refused to read the part of Rose. She insisted that she play Dorothy. I wonder what Bea Arthur would have thought of that!

Stan learned something different from each of the women. He became remarkably close to Estelle Getty who knew right away that Stan was “family,” to which Stan thought she was talking about Jewish when she was actually talking about being gay. In Hollywood in the ‘80s, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, coming out – even for a gay friendly show like Golden Girls – was career suicide. While not as close with the other women, he still learned plenty while collaborating with Betty.

I learned to keep going. And keep smiling. Life will throw you many obstacles, but it’s how you deal with them that shows what kind of person you are. She always had a curiosity about life. At every stage of her life. And not take herself too seriously. Just look at the way she played with Ryan Reynolds. But I mean … who wouldn’t?

Newbie actors can learn a lot from Betty. To always be prepared and know your lines. And the minute you walk on a set, or the studio lot for that matter, have a positive attitude. Be nice to everyone. And why wouldn’t you be? She wasn’t doing it to kiss up to people or to get her next job. She genuinely loved humans. And animals, of course.

Stan’s favorite Betty White memory?

That is the amazing thing about Betty and her career. It is hard to pick one memory. As someone who grew up with her on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I loved every second she walked on screen as Sue Ann Nivens. Then I was in shock on the sound stage of Golden Girls, standing between Betty and the studio audience and hearing them laugh at her saying words that we wrote. Then years later, to see her still delighting studio audiences between takes on Hot in Cleveland. She made a little gay boy from Detroit’s dreams come true.

Betty had that entertainment flair and comedic timing. What would Stan say to her if he had the chance?

I would thank her for giving so much of her life to making us all laugh. She could have stopped with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or with Mama’s Family, or then again with The Golden Girls. But she didn’t. She went on to do so much more, including hosting Saturday Night Live. But I suspect Covid was too much for her. Supposedly, the last time she was seen outside of her house was January 2020. Without the ability to make people laugh, which I believe gave her air, she couldn’t go on. But I refuse to be sad, she wouldn’t have wanted that. Why else would she choose New Year’s Eve to leave us? She wanted a time when all were gathering and could be talking about her. And toasting her. I know I did that night. Not as much as Andy Cohen, but I still had a glass of vodka in her honor. Betty White will live in our hearts forever.

Betty Marion White Ludden

1922 – 2021

Writers Note: Stan Zimmerman tours with An Evening on the Lanai, a “Girls” clip and story sharing show with tales that even the most die-hard of fans have never heard before. Stan is also putting all his memories together from his years in the industry for his upcoming book, The Girls: From Golden to Gilmore. In addition, he makes appearances around the nation at conventions and even the sold-out Golden Girls cruises. A passion project Stan has been working on for years is Silver Foxes, a male version of Golden Girls and homage to his first big gig. A reading of his show included Leslie Jordan, Bruce Vilanch, George Takei, and Cheri Oteri.

You can follow Stan on Instagram: ZimmermanStan

Find our tribute and more in the FEB/MAR entertainment issue of Metrosource.

(Featured Image by Herb Ball/NBC Universal/Getty Images)

Last modified: January 17, 2022