When The Golden Girls premiered on NBC in September 1985, it was hardly a sure thing. The show’s producers, Susan Harris, Tony Thomas, and Paul Junger Witt, had a track record of sitcom success, and at least three of the lead actresses were well known to the public by then, but the show’s focus on 60-plus women made it an anomaly in the television landscape. Even the actresses themselves were unsure of the show’s chances, especially when they saw how young the writers were. But the series was an immediate, warmly received hit, and stayed that way for seven seasons. Over at Frontiers Media, writer Drew Mackie has assembled a nice tribute to the show called “Thank You For Being A Friend: An Oral History Of The Golden Girls.” The interviewees here are writers and producers who worked on the show and remember it fondly. While they talk about the show’s stars, including a nice little anecdote about Bea Arthur laughing at the dirty parts of The Opposite Of Sex with her pal Angela Lansbury, the real focus of the article is how and why The Golden Girls became such a hit in the gay community.
Writer Jeff Duteil, who penned a script in which Arthur’s character befriends a lesbian, remembers that The Golden Girls “had a huge gay following—and right away, too.” Some gay bars, according to the article, were hosting viewing parties for the series as early as the first season. “The gay community really felt these characters were an extension of their own communities,” Duteil says. “They were accepting and funny and bitchy. The best fag hags a guy could have. They were accepting.” Especially by the standards of the era, The Golden Girls was extremely gay-friendly in its storylines as well. In one episode, for instance, elderly Sofia (Estelle Getty) defends gay marriage. Crucially, this was the episode submitted for Emmy consideration. But the great thing about The Golden Girls, the insiders agree, is that it appealed to a broad spectrum of viewers. As writer Stan Zimmerman puts it:
They were playing it in gay bars, but the great thing about this show was that the fans went from little kids to grandparents—everybody of all age brackets and sexual persuasions. It’s a beloved show. That doesn’t happen too often, and that’s what I think has allowed it to maintain this crazy staying power.