Thirty years ago this week, “The Golden Girls” ended its cheesecake-fueled seven-season run with an unforgettable finale that involved an awkward date, a savage prank, an unexpected wedding and a tearful goodbye.
In the two-part episode, “One Flew Out of the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which aired May 9, 1992, Blanche (Rue McClanahan) has plans the night her Uncle Lucas (Leslie Nielsen) is visiting and pawns him off on Dorothy (Bea Arthur), telling each that the other is eager to meet. But when Dorothy and Lucas realize they were lied to, they scheme to teach Blanche a lesson by pretending they’ve hit it off and are getting married. During the elaborate ruse, they decide to wed for real, and Dorothy ends up moving out of the foursome’s Miami home to live with Lucas in Atlanta.
While Arthur had opted to leave the hit NBC sitcom, McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty went on to reprise their roles in the spinoff “The Golden Palace,” which premiered on CBS in September of that year.
“We knew we wanted to kind of give her a fitting tribute and a fitting departure from the show,” recalled Mitchell Hurwitz, who served as a writer and producer on the series’ final seasons, including the finale.
“I remember, she was very moved by the last episode,” Hurwitz said of Arthur. “And she wrote me this lovely note about it. And that was really a privilege. I always felt lucky to be there at all. And to be given a chance to write something that was meaningful for her was really special.”
“There were just tremendous writers over the seven years of the show, at every stage of it,” added Hurwitz, who noted that “Golden Girls” creator Susan Harris and her partners Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas were “really responsible for the soul of that show.”
For Hurwitz, the most fun and touching moment from the finale was the farewell scene, in which Dorothy leaves and comes back.
“I really wanted to go even further,” he recalled. “I wanted to have the credits start to play and kind of pull them really quickly when she came back in, and then as you know, she comes back in one more time, presumably having scaled the lanai wall.”
“It really kind of mirrored reality. I remember there were a lot of goodbyes said that week,” he said. “And she didn’t want to leave. I think Dorothy didn’t want to leave and I think Bea Arthur didn’t really want to leave.”
“Bea was a very deep person and a very warm person, but it was all kind of hidden in this kind of stern exterior,” Hurwitz added. “So you know, it was kind of amazing to be part of something where so much emotion came out of her. … As you can see, when you watch it, Bea is really moved trying to say goodbye to these people. And I think they were surprised that she was as moved as she was. I don’t think she was surprised, because you know, she was a very deep person. But she didn’t show it often. And so the ending, I think, ended up being very affecting, because we really saw, you know, not only the character leaving, but Bea Arthur dealing with the fact that she was leaving.”
Hurwitz also reflected on guest star Nielsen’s casting as Dorothy’s future husband.
“I think it was a great match with Bea Arthur because they’re both such formidable presences, and they looked good together,” he said.
Hurwitz pointed out that the finale has several departures from a typical “Golden Girls” episode, such as the voice-overs revealing the inner thoughts of each character during Dorothy and Lucas’ wedding.
“The idea of finally hearing what was going on in the Golden Girls’ heads was kind of interesting,” he observed. “And, you know, there was this magical realism moment, where Bea Arthur is thinking, ‘God, I love this man so much, and we’re so in sync, and I feel like he can hear every word that I’m thinking,’ and then inexplicably, Leslie Nielsen thinks, ‘Yes, Dorothy, I can.’”
However, he still considers the finale a classic episode at its heart, “because it really was about their relationships.”
“They’re having to say goodbye to someone they love, which is a very real thing that you have to deal with at that age,” Hurwitz said. “We got to deal with it in a much more positive way. But I think it was still just as emotional. The goal was to find some true emotion there and to resist sentimentality, which happens on sitcoms. Oftentimes when sitcoms try to be emotional, they become sentimental and cloying, and, you know, these women had too much dignity to let that happen.”
Hurwitz, who went on to create “Arrested Development,” said one of the great lessons he learned working on “The Golden Girls” was that “you can always make it funnier.”
“This was a highly rewritten show,” he said. “It was a five-day-a-week shoot. We shot in front of a live audience on Friday night and we read the script at a table with the actresses on Monday morning. And right after the Monday morning read, we would immediately go into a rewrite. Then the next morning there’d be another reading of the new script. That would be rewritten. Then we'd do a run-through on Tuesday. We’d rewrite after that. I mean, this happened every day of the week until the audience came in. And we had two different audiences on Friday night, the same episode but two different audiences and even between the shows we would rewrite them a lot. So it was this constant effort to make the show funnier, and make sure everything was bulletproof.”
“The Golden Girls,” which was recently celebrated in an inaugural fan convention and continues to find new viewers on Hulu, is seemingly as popular as ever.
“I think the show has lasted because it’s about love, and it’s about support, and it’s about being proud of who you are,” Hurwitz said. “And you know, especially when society isn’t holding you in high regard. It’s about not quitting and fighting back. And it has all these kinds of universal themes that somehow these women bring to life.”