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5 ‘Golden Girls’ episodes where Betty White shines as Rose

"Betty is somebody who can have you laughing one moment and crying the next."
The Golden Girls
Theo Westenberger / NBCU
/ Source: TODAY

As the dimwitted Rose Nylund, Betty White made “Golden Girls” viewers laugh for seven seasons with her hilariously naive comments and rambling St. Olaf stories. But White brought more than humor to the role.

Audiences already knew White was funny when “The Golden Girls” premiered in 1985, as Jim Colucci, author of “Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai,” points out. White, of course, had previously played saucy Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and was quick with a quip on game shows and talk shows.

“But then she comes to ‘The Golden Girls’ and she shows these dramatic skills that can rip your heart out,” Colucci told TODAY. “And along with the other three, Betty is somebody who can have you laughing one moment and crying the next and it’s so amazing to watch how she does it.”

Here are five standout Rose episodes to revisit.

‘Old Friends’ (season 3)

After Blanche gives Rose’s beloved teddy bear, Fernando, to Daisy (Jenny Lewis), a member of the Girl Scouts-esque Sunshine Cadets, Daisy holds the toy hostage. Ultimately, Rose outsmarts Daisy, retrieving the bear while telling her, “Sometimes, life just isn’t fair, kiddo.” 

“The denouement of that episode is so unexpected, for me, at least the first time I saw it, because this little girl was such a monster, but Rose is nice, and we know Betty is nice. But we all are so gratified when she grabs the bear out of that little brat’s hands and shoves her out the door. And it’s just done with such a one smooth move. And brilliant comedic timing. And that’s a little side of Betty that I hadn’t expected to see, because Rose is so naive.”

“Rose had to be the character who didn’t know she was being funny,” Colucci added. “The joke was kind of on her. She was just being naive. And if she did say something cutting, she didn’t realize she was doing it, and that makes it so much harder. And Betty did it with such aplomb. It was incredible. I just love to see different ways that she could be funny, so that’s why ‘Old Friends’ is one of my favorites.”

Rue McClanahan and Jenny Lewis in the "Golden Girls" episode "Old Friends"
Rue McClanahan and Jenny Lewis in the "Golden Girls" episode "Old Friends"Courtesy Everett Collection

‘72 Hours’ (season 5)

Rose learns she may have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion when she had gallbladder surgery six years earlier, and must wait three days for her test results. In one of the 1990 episode’s frank moments, Rose tells Blanche, “This isn’t supposed to happen to people like me.”

“AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose,” Blanche replies. “It is not God punishing people for their sins.”

“It shows so many flavors of Betty, where she’s not just being funny, but of course, she’s confronting what at the time was the scariest — and it still is terribly scary — but was the scariest thing we knew at the moment,” said Colucci. “This disease that was killing so many people and was spreading in a way that people felt very vulnerable. So I just, I’m amazed by that.” 

Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White in "72 Hours"
Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White in "72 Hours"Courtesy Everett Collection

‘A Piece of Cake’ (season 2)

The women plan a surprise party for a friend, kicking off a series of birthday-themed vignettes. In one, Rose remembers the last cake she ever baked in St. Olaf after her husband, Charlie, died.

“She pretended that he was throwing her a birthday party and it’s where she breaks the news out loud to him —and of course he’s unseen; he’s dead — that she’s moving to Miami to get on with her life,” said Colucci.  “And it’s this beautiful monologue that Betty delivers with such feeling, she rips your heart out. You feel so touched and moved by her, by the guilt she’s feeling for moving on. But yet the excitement she has for having a new life coming up.”

‘The Heart Attack’ (season 1)

Sophia begins experiencing chest pains and fears she’s having a heart attack, prompting the ladies to discuss their own thoughts on mortality. White delivers a heartbreaking monologue about dressing Rose’s late husband, Charlie, after he died from a heart attack.

Ray Richmond, author of “Betty White: 100 Remarkable Moments in an Extraordinary Life,” cited this scene as particularly authentic.

“This was a few years after her real-life husband, Allen Ludden, had died,” Richmond told TODAY. “And you can see that she was really summoning his memory in her portrayal with real tears.”

Golden Girls
Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux, Betty White as Rose Nylund and Bea Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak in season oneGary Null / NBC

‘A Little Romance’ (season 1)

In this classic 1985 episode, which Richmond named as one of the most memorable, Rose is smitten with psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Newman, but begins to doubt the relationship due to her self-consciousness about his height. After he meets the other ladies during an uproariously funny dinner, he says he has something important to tell Rose and she agonizes over whether she’s ready to marry him.

“One of the great ironic twists, at the end of the episode, is that he decides that she’s not right for him because she’s not Jewish,” Richmond said. “She played it wonderfully.”

White herself told Colucci for his book, “This episode sticks with me maybe more than any of the others. They milked it for every short joke you could possibly have, but there was a sweetness about the episode, too.”