A show that includes gay coming out stories, lesbian crushes, a drag queen musical band, a transgender politician, and the AIDS epidemic sounds like it should be something new on HBO Max or Showtime … but it was a comedy … in the ‘80s … on network TV … that featured four old women. It is impossible to talk about the advancement of LGBTQ themes in entertainment history without paying homage to The Golden Girls, a show that continues to entertain and energize generations old and young.
Brought in by NBC to match The Cosby Show’s popularity, and without the aid of modern-day social media, The Golden Girls premiered in 1985 to twenty-five million viewers and great critical and viewer acclaim. The show would span seven seasons, win 11 Emmy Awards (including one win for each of the four leads), and become syndicated at the same level as Seinfeld – even 35 years later. On a pop culture level, the show has inspired multitudes of live shows, pop up restaurants, card games, drag queen performances, and even sold-out cruises. The one-liners masterfully acted by Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty are still repeated in everyday chat and popular memes. The longevity of these one-liners is a testament to the real star of The Golden Girls – the writing. In 2014, the Writers Guild of America placed the sitcom at number 69 in their list of the “101 Best Written TV Series of All Time.” Imagine being a fly on the writing room wall during that first season?
With a list of credits that follow Stan Zimmerman like an encyclopedia set being sold by a salesman from St. Olaf, it is hard to think of writer, producer, and director Stan as a newbie in the industry. Stan’s credits include writing for The Gilmore Girls, Roseanne, Fame, Wanda at Large, the rewrite for ABC’s Annie, both Brady Bunch films, and for a series of projects that include some of the most diversified names in the biz with Judith Light, Ellen Burstyn, Vanessa Williams, Wilson Cruz, Wendie Malick, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Sandra Bernhard, George Takei, Mindy Sterling, and Leslie Jordan … just to name a very few. Flashback to Stan’s first day on his first major gig, writing Season 1 of The Golden Girls with creative partner Jim Berg.
We were excited and obviously nervous. We were very young, but luckily had already been staff writers on one show before The Golden Girls, so we kind of knew what to expect. That first episode we worked on, we thought we were going to be getting coffee for the staff. But on that first day, we were asked to pitch out an entire episode right after lunch. I couldn’t eat my lunch.
Though we think of The Golden Girls as a big gay celebration, things behind the scenes were not so gay-positive. This was still a very straight Hollywood. The number of major stars who were coming out were few and far between and were often outed by the media, not by choice. Rock Hudson was the biggest onscreen actor to have come out during the mid ‘80s, who consequently died from complications of HIV the same year that The Golden Girls premiered. During the later ‘80s, there was an increase in celebrities who came out – Elton John, Ian McKellan, Boy George, and Rupert Everett being among them. Rupert Everett has stated that coming out was a career killer. Being openly gay behind the camera did not work so well either.
People find it hard to believe, since The Golden Girls seemed so gay-positive, but yes, we were in the closet on the show. You must remember it was a different time and our agents urged us to keep our sexual orientation secret and bring a woman to any event associated with the show. It was also the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and there was a lot of fear in the world. Especially in Hollywood. And a lot of misinformation.
But Stan was eager to learn the ropes of sitcom writing and he cut his teeth with the best of them.
TV writing is a very collaborative medium. There are many people that must approve a story before you even begin writing it. There is the staff, executive producers, the studio, and most importantly, the network.
We loved the other writers. We especially bonded with Mort Nathan and Barry Fanaro. Years later we helped them with their pilots, and they offered to produce the first pilot we got produced. You spend so many hours in a writers’ room, it’s always better when you like the other writers.
Presently, Stan teaches sitcom writing to classes of students eager to write their winning script or sell their big show idea. A big part of Stan’s mentorship is to encourage writers and actors to keep at it, keep going, keep trying. Entertainment is not an easy journey, and everyone must put in their time and hard work. Working on The Golden Girls was boot camp.
I have to say my favorite memory, although it didn’t feel good at the time, was being in our office working on multiple jokes for the end of a scene that we would have to pitch to the staff for approval. I didn’t feel like I was a funny writer, and that show was like Comedy Writing 101. We learned from the best at the start of our career and that show shot us out of a canon into an amazing journey in this business.
But putting in the hard work and learning from the veterans around him would earn Stan and his writing partner, Jim, a WGA nomination for their episode, “Blanche and the Younger Man” that also featured a visit from Rose’s mother.
The idea for that episode came in an odd flash in my head after the producers passed on all our ideas during our first pitch session. We were walking out of the office, feeling defeated. I turned around, in the doorway, and yelled something like, “What if Rose’s mother came to visit?” They told us to come back and sit down and we started beating out the story.
Writing a first major episode for his first major network show, is there any special moment that stands out?
There are so many wonderful moments and lines from that episode. But if I had to pick one, it would probably be when Alma, Rose’s mother, says, “Stopping me from living isn’t going to stop me dying.” It was such a beautiful moment, especially the way Betty White responded to it.
Another part of the business that Stan would come to learn, is that there is no personal life while working on a hit show.
When you’re working on a TV series, you really don’t get to have a personal life. You could be stuck at the studio until 7pm or 1am or even later. You never know, so it’s hard to make plans. I gave up a lot of my young years to work in TV. But once the show wrapped for the season I was out and about enjoying the LA gay nightlife. I was also one of the first of my group of friends to have a job that I could afford to buy a house and a car. I was always grateful and knew I was lucky.
The lines were tailor-made for the actresses – for both their acting styles as well as their characters. This team of writers was making a hit.
Nobody anticipated the huge success of the show. We had a front-row seat to watch it all unfold before our very eyes. At each Monday table read, they would announce the ratings for the week prior. The room was stunned at the rapid rise up the Nielsen chart.
During Season One, there was a unique relationship between writers and actresses, one built on trust and respect but not as collaborative as you would have guessed.
The actresses had very little to do with the scripts for Season One. I learned years later that Bea Arthur was not happy with how young the writers looked but changed her tune when she saw the quality of the scripts week after week. All four of the ladies were always saying in interviews that the show was a success because of the writers. They didn’t have to do that. They were all legends in their own right.
Being a success was not only to prove beneficial for the network but would allow the show to grow and continue to push the envelope to cover themes such as immigration, suicide, politics, poverty, and importantly for that time, LGBT issues.
Once you have a successful show, a network usually backs off with their notes and you have more freedom. I am still amazed that they let Blanche say, “You can kiss my A**” for our “Adult Education” episode. When we wrote that line, we laughed but didn’t think it would ever last to tape night.
Rue McClanahan’s character of Blanche did not welcome the idea of homosexuality and same-sex marriage with open arms. In real life, Rue was an advocate for gay rights and appeared often at benefits for gay causes. Her last TV project would be Del Shores’ Sordid Lives for LOGO. Even from purely a writer’s standpoint, Stan appreciated working with her the most.
She was a true actor and I remember her telling us to give Blanche meaty material. That is why Jim and I decided to challenge the overt sexuality of her character with a situation where she didn’t feel comfortable being sexual. That was how we came up with the idea of a sexual harassment theme for our “Adult Education” episode.
What Golden Girl would Stan be in real life?
I will always be a Sophia. Estelle was my girl. We became friends outside of the show and remained friends after I was no longer writing for it.
Stan would not continue his work on future seasons of The Golden Girls. There must be a story there.
It’s a long story. Show politics. For the nitty-gritty of it all, you will have to wait until my book The Girls: From Golden to Gilmore comes out from Indigo River Publishing. It’s about all the wonderful women I have had the chance to work with. And Roseanne.
In addition to learning about the good, the bad, and the golden about the industry, he would learn something for himself that he still ascribes to this very day:
To keep going, even when you are not feeling appreciated. And just because you land one big job, don’t ever stop creating. That is the beauty of being an artist, you can just open your mind (and heart) and there is a gift you can share with the world. That’s why I love meeting The Golden Girls fans and hearing how words I wrote so many years ago, still affect them.
The Golden Girls would continue to gain new viewers and new generations of audiences.
I think The Golden Girls is still so popular because it’s f**king funny. But there is also a truthfulness to it. And they were four of the funniest comedy actresses in the history of TV. Of any age.
Though Stan would move on to other projects, The Golden Girls would always be a part of his life, including his fantasy reunion script.
I would have made it a glamorous TV movie like Facts of Life Goes to Paris, with our four girls taking a trip together. Or a cruise, kind of like the two Golden Fans at Sea cruises where I was a special guest at the beginning of 2020.
In 2016, Stan held a readthrough of a TV pilot that he and Jim Berg wrote, titled Silver Foxes, with a Golden Girls-esque energy to it. The readthrough included George Takei, Leslie Jordan, Bruce Vilanch, Melissa Peterman, and Cheri Oteri and took place in Stan’s own living room (not the first star-studded readthrough to occur there). The story begins with a group of gay men who rescue their friend from a homophobic senior living facility, before whisking him back to their home in Palm Springs, California. The show was originally meant for LOGO who had to pass on the series for budgetary reasons. You would think that Silver Foxes would be an easy sell, considering the popularity of The Golden Girls.
The show became infamous when word got out that we could not get any networks to even read the script because of the continued homophobia and ageism that exists in Hollywood.
We are still out there pitching it as a TV series but have literally been told by a major streaming company that the concept didn’t have “broad appeal.” That is hard to hear. In the meantime, we turned it into a play and this past summer had a very successful virtual reading of it with Michael Urie directing. Our amazing cast included George Takei, Daniel Davis, Jim J. Bullock, Garrett Clayton, and Daniele Gaither. Hopefully, when theatres open again, we will be able to present it live on a stage.
Is it even possible to revisit something as iconic as The Golden Girls?
I must clarify that Silver Foxes was never meant as a reboot of The Golden Girls. It is similar only in that it’s an ensemble comedy with older characters. But the magic of The Golden Girls can never be recaptured. It was something special because of the time and the actors and the writing and just the stars aligning. That does not happen very often and that’s what makes it still so relevant today.
After all these years, there is still a Golden Girls line that gets him through life, even through 2020.
A line we wrote for Bea Arthur, “No, no, I will not have a nice day!” But I actually live with the opposite viewpoint. I like to wake up every day determined to have a nice one. Even when challenging things happen, I look at it as a way to grow.
Now, personally having shared many happy hours with Stan Zimmerman, I know the off-the-record truth but thought I would try my luck in print: the Bea Arthur vs Betty White rumors – true?
Don’t make me shoot you a “Bea Arthur” look!
Last modified: February 2, 2021