Rue McClanahan, the Emmy-winning actress who brought the sexually liberated Southern belle Blanche Devereaux to life on the hit TV series “The Golden Girls,” has died. She was 76.
Her manager Barbara Lawrence said McClanahan died Thursday at 1 a.m. of a stroke.
She had undergone treatment for breast cancer in 1997 and later lectured to cancer support groups on “aging gracefully.” In 2009, she had heart bypass surgery.
McClanahan had an active career in off-Broadway and regional stages in the 1960s before she was tapped for TV in the 1970s for the key best-friend character on the hit series “Maude,” starring Beatrice Arthur.
But her most loved role came in 1985 when she co-starred with Arthur, Betty White and Estelle Getty in “The Golden Girls,” a runaway hit that broke the sitcom mold by focusing on the foibles of four aging — and frequently eccentric — women living together in Miami.
“Golden Girls” aimed to show “that when people mature, they add layers,” she told The New York Times in 1985. “They don’t turn into other creatures. The truth is we all still have our child, our adolescent, and your young woman living in us.”
Blanche, who called her father “Big Daddy,” was a frequent target of roommates Dorothy, Rose and the outspoken Sophia (Getty), who would fire off zingers at Blanche such as, “Your life’s an open blouse.”
McClanahan snagged an Emmy for her work on the show in 1987. In an Associated Press interview that year, McClanahan said Blanche was unlike any other role she had ever played.
“Probably the closest I’ve ever done was Blanche DuBois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at the Pasadena Playhouse,” she said. “I think, too, that’s where the name came from, although my character is not a drinker and not crazy.”
Her Blanche Devereaux, she said, “is in love with life and she loves men. I think she has an attitude toward women that’s competitive. She is friends with Dorothy and Rose, but if she has enough provocation she becomes competitive with them. I think basically she’s insecure. It’s the other side of the Don Juan syndrome.”
After “The Golden Girls” was canceled in 1992, McClanahan, White and Getty reprised their roles in a short-lived spinoff, “Golden Palace.”
McClanahan continued working in television, on stage and in film, appearing in the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau vehicle “Out to Sea” and as the biology teacher in “Starship Troopers.”
She stepped in to portray Madame Morrible, the crafty headmistress, for a time in “Wicked,” Broadway’s long-running “Wizard of Oz” prequel.
In 2008, McClanahan appeared in the Logo comedy “Sordid Lives: The Series,” playing the slightly addled, elderly mother of an institutionalized drag queen.
During production, McClanahan was recovering from 2007 surgery on her knee. It didn’t stop her from filming a sex scene in which the bed broke, forcing her to hang on to a windowsill to avoid tumbling off.
McClanahan was born Eddi-Rue McClanahan in Healdton, Okla., to building contractor William McClanahan and his wife, Dreda Rheua-Nell, a beautician. She graduated with honors from the University of Tulsa with a degree in German and theater arts.
McClanahan’s acting career began on the stage. According to a 1985 Los Angeles Times profile, she appeared at the Pasadena (Calif.) Playhouse, studied in New York with Uta Hagen and Harold Clurman, and worked in soaps and on the stage.
She won an Obie — the off-Broadway version of the Tony — in 1970 for “Who’s Happy Now,” playing the “other woman” in a family drama written by Oliver Hailey. She reprised the role in a 1975 television version; in a review, The New York Times described her character as “an irrepressible belle given to frequent bouts of `wooziness’ and occasional bursts of shrewdness.”
She had appeared only sporadically on television until producer Norman Lear tapped her for a guest role on “All in the Family” in 1971.
She went from there to a regular role in the “All in the Family” spinoff “Maude,” playing Vivian, the neighbor and best friend to Arthur in the starring role.
When Arthur died in April 2009, McClanahan recalled that she had felt constrained by “Golden Girls” during the later years of its run. “Bea liked to be the star of the show. She didn’t really like to do that ensemble playing,” McClanahan said.
After that series ended in 1978, McClanahan landed the role as Aunt Fran on “Mama’s Family” in 1983.
McClanahan was married six times: Tom Bish, with whom she had a son, Mark Bish; actor Norman Hartweg; Peter D’Maio; Gus Fisher; and Tom Keel. She married husband Morrow Wilson on Christmas Day in 1997.
She called her 2007 memoir “My First Five Husbands … And the Ones Who Got Away.”