Saturday, July 26, 2008

'I'm the Mother'

Tony Award-winning actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein paid tribute to the late Estelle Getty in a guest column in the New York Post yesterday. Getty died earlier this week at the age of 84; Friday would have been her 85th birthday.

Before going on to worldwide fame as the acerbic Sophia on the hit TV sitcom The Golden Girls in the 1980s, Getty was a hardworking New York actress. In fact, when she was cast in The Golden Girls, she was playing the mother of Fierstein's character, Arnold Beckoff, in Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway. Ironically, according to IBDB, this was Getty's only Broadway credit.

Why "ironic"? Let Fierstein explain:

At the height of popularity of "The Golden Girls," 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 bankable star on any network. She was bigger than Carol Burnett, more saleable 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.

Despite all of the glamour, glory and gold of television fame, Estelle Getty was a theater creature.
Fierstein gives Getty much of the credit for making Torch Song Trilogy such a big success (1,222 performances, Tony Award for best play, a popular film adaptation [sans Getty]). Besides creating the role on stage, Getty had persuaded Fierstein to write the character into the play in the first place.
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 this henna-wigged tornado in a turquoise suit 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 was their mother, then they were a drag queen.

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 brokenhearted, the actress was brokenhearted. It all felt real....

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.
Unfortunately, this dynamic performance was not captured on film. In the movie, Mrs. Beckoff was played by Anne Bancroft. Fierstein notes wryly:
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?)
There's another irony in this story, a personal one for me.

Although Estelle Getty played Mrs. Beckoff for some 1,200 performances (perhaps more, if you include the off-Broadway run and subsequent national tours), when I saw Torch Song Trilogy in New York in February 1983, it was during the two-week period that Barbara Barrie played the role in Getty's absence.

What are the odds of that?

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