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'Golden Girls' producer Tony Thomas on show's popularity: 'What we built was a family'

Tony Thomas, one of the executive producers of “The Golden Girls,” reflects on working with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty on the beloved sitcom.
/ Source: TODAY

Nearly three decades after “The Golden Girls” ended, the sitcom is as beloved as ever. Recent tributes to the adored foursome have included themed food items, gifts galore and even a fan cruise, as new viewers discover the show via Hulu.

Tony Thomas, one of the executive producers of “The Golden Girls,” reflected on the series’ enduring popularity in an interview with TODAY.

“What we built was a family,” he said. “What we told America was life was not over just because you have an empty nest or you're divorced or your spouse died. You can create a new family and live another life. And I think the key to our show was the fact that life goes on. And there are other families. I think if you look at television, the most successful shows are shows that built within their cast a family that you loved to be with.”

The Golden Girls
NBC via Getty Images

Looking back on the series’ most memorable episodes, Thomas says the pilot still stands out to him.

“One of my favorite scenes is when Dorothy tells Rose that she realizes she's getting so old,” he said. “She was talking with some of the high school kids that she was teaching and felt so young and light of heart, and all of a sudden realized she was not that age. And the way she talks about it … We told the truth. We had a great deal of heart. And then we combined it with comedy.”

Thomas called the four ladies — Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty — “brilliant,” comparing the cast to “an NBA all-star team.”

He also shared the sweet favor Betty White did the last time they saw each other, which involved a hilarious moment from the show’s third season.

"Golden Girls" Honored with Dedication Ceremony at The Sunset-Gower Studios Stage 2
Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas and Betty White attend a ceremony in which "Golden Girls" was honored in 2006 at the Sunset-Gower Studios Stage 2 in Hollywood.Michael Tran / FilmMagic

“There's a scene where they're throwing a birthday party for a friend, and they sent Rose out to get the cake,” he explained. “And Rose did not know it, but she stopped at a pornographic bakery. And she came home with a cake, and she opened the box. She thought it was the state of Florida, let me put it that way. But it was something completely different than that.”

He continued, “So a friend of mine's parent was turning 95, and I asked Betty to say happy birthday to her and set up the clip. ‘I hope you don't go out and buy a cake like I did.’ And then I ran the clip. And then Betty came back at the end and wished the lady a happy 95th.”

Thomas, 70, noted the show’s intergenerational appeal, saying, “‘The Golden Girls’ brought families together.”

“I have been told many a time that people my age and younger go to their grandparents’ or parents’ house and bond over watching those shows,” he added. “And laugh wonderfully at the antics of our ladies, and react warmly when they see them go through their life moments. So that's very gratifying. And what's also very gratifying is people are still discovering the show. High school kids and college kids and everyone — each generation is finding ‘Golden Girls’ and it's becoming stronger and stronger.”

Thomas, whose other TV and film credits include “Soap,” “Empty Nest,” “Blossom” and “Dead Poets Society,” is also known for his work with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, founded nearly 60 years ago by his father, TV legend Danny Thomas.

In fact, he sees “an interesting symmetry” to “The Golden Girls” and the organization, which treats childhood cancers and pediatric diseases.

“Both are about family and both are about taking care of each other,” he said. “And certainly ‘The Golden Girls’ did that. And everyone at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital takes care of the parents and patients. And our donors help us do that. And the interesting tie there is, I will talk to people and I ask them, ‘Why do you give to St. Jude?’ — people that are much younger than me. And they said, ‘Because my parents did. And my grandparents did.’ And I'm always struck by that family ritual. And in ‘Golden Girls,’ I talk to people very young. And I say, ‘You're really a big fan of “Golden Girls.” Where did you find it?’ They say, ‘Well, my grandparents watch it and my parents watched it. Now I watch it and my children watch it.’"

EIHS Hosts 34th Annual Ellis Island Medals Of Honor Ceremony
Tony Thomas and Marlo Thomas attend the 34th Annual Ellis Island Medals Of Honor Ceremony hosted by EIHS at Ellis Island on May 11, 2019 in New York City.NOAM GALAI / Getty Images for Ellis Island Ho

Thomas was recently awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, a distinction given to those who “embody the Ellis Island spirit of tolerance, diversity and patriotism.”

“It’s a family tradition,” said Thomas, whose father and sister, Marlo Thomas, were previous recipients (all three won Emmys as well).

“My father believed greatly in heritage,” Thomas said of the “Danny Thomas Show” star, whose parents were born in Lebanon. “And because of that, he wanted to thank America for letting his people into America. So he went about trying to raise money to show the world and to show America that the people of his heritage could indeed be beneficial to America.”

According to Thomas, “The Golden Girls” is so relatable because “everybody has somebody like one of them in their family.”

“Whether it's the inflated ego of Blanche, or the naivete and lack of sophistication of Rose, or the acerbic tone and wit of Dorothy or the loose-cannon element of Sophia,” he said. “That's, I think, what makes people identify with the show.”