Sunday, December 6, 2009

You'll Rue Today!

Despite a lengthy (and quite varied) career on stage, in television and in films, Miss Rue McClanahan, whether she likes it or not, is most likely to be remembered for her work as Blanche Devereaux on The Golden Girls.

Hailing from Ardmore, Oklahoma (where her birth name was Eddi-Rue McClanahan), she spent many years weighing whether to pursue an acting career, which she craved, or stay a full-time mother to her young son and settle for running a dance studio. Her son, from a brief late 1950s marriage, was shuffled back and forth from McClanahan’s parents house in her home town to wherever (frequently New York City) her acting career took her in those lean early days.

She won parts in low-budget feature films with names like Five Minutes to Love, Angel’s Flight and Walk the Angry Beach and worked intermittently on the stage (sometimes rubbing elbows with future stars like Dustin Hoffman, pictured here.)

All along, she took on any and all types of roles from musicals to comedies to dramas. In 1970, she took on a limited run role on the daytime soap opera Another World, playing a pediatric nurse with eyes for her young twin patients’ father. Even though she was meant to be a villain (her character was slowly poisoning the wife who stood in her way!), she received plentiful fan mail and her role was extended beyond its initial conception.

Everything changed for her, though she couldn’t quite know it right then, when Norman Lear spotted her on stage and cast her as half of a swinging couple (with Vincent Gardenia as her husband) who head to an unknowing Archie & Edith’s house on All in the Family for a night of wife-swapping naughtiness. That gig led to Rue being cast as Bea Arthur’s ditzy, but well-meaning friend Vivian on Maude.

Vivian was not a regular during the first season, appearing only a few times, but once the considerable chemistry between Bea and Rue was revealed, she came on board the series, marrying neighbor Arthur Harmon (Conrad Bain), and remained with it until its cancellation. Maude gave Rue primo exposure and included many zany situations for her. She performed in 100 episodes of the popular show and it only came to an end because Bea Arthur didn’t wish to continue any longer.

Norman Lear then developed a comedy series specially for Rue called Apple Pie. She was very pleased with the concept (concerning a lonely Depression-era woman who advertises for a ready-made family in the newspaper and opens her home to them), but the series was caught in the mire of an executive changeover and given no support, being cancelled after only two episodes had aired.

The next several years were kept busy through TV movies, sporadic features, and many guest-starring appearances on popular shows like Lou Grant, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Trapper John, M.D. and Newhart, among others. It was then that she was offered a co-starring role with Vicki Lawrence in a series based on ‘Mama’ Thelma Harper, made famous on The Carol Burnett Show. McClanahan was to portray Harper’s feisty, fiery sparring partner on Mama’s Family. However, in between the contract-signing and filming, the creators decided to introduce the flouncy, mouthy, confrontational character of Naomi (played by Dorothy Lyman) and Rue’s character of Aunt Fran was augmented into a dithering, meek idiot. Betty White appeared from time to time on this show as haughty Ellen, but the two didn't become particularly close then.

McClanahan’s heart was no longer in the project in the wake of the drastic changes and she welcomed the chance to exit after 24 episodes. Fortunately, for her, the signature role of a lifetime was coming available not long after and she was free to take it.

Miss McClanahan was given a copy (dog-eared, according to her) of a pilot for a sitcom about three older, single ladies living together in Miami, Florida. The series, called The Golden Girls, contained a role she wanted to play very badly - Blanche - but the producers, having seen her essay goofballs such as Vivian and Aunt Fran, wanted her for Rose! Betty White, who had been a smash on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as the sexually suggestive Sue Ann Nivens, was in line to play Blanche.

It wasn’t until someone in the casting process suggested a switch that Rue would get to sink her teeth into Blanche and the roles would be swapped. This left Betty White reeling (briefly!), but she soon got a grip on Rose and made her an equally indelible character as well. After some nudging, Bea Arthur was coerced into taking the role of Dorothy and the star trio was set. Estelle Getty, who had wowed audiences in the play Torch Song Trilogy, had already been hired to play Dorothy’s stroke-ridden, take-no-prisoners mother in a recurring role, but once the pilot was shot, it became clear that all four ladies needed to appear together in every episode. (Thus, Coco, the gay male housekeeper, was swiftly written out of subsequent episodes without explanation.)

In an odd bit of lunatic decision-making, the director of the pilot episode, Jay Sandrich, refused to allow McClanahan to use the inimitable southern accent that has since become a hilarious piece of TV history. So we were robbed of hearing the “true” Blanche in what was an uproarious start to the series. Incidentally, Sandrich returned to direct Girls only one other time in what is widely regarded as the show’s nadir: the piggyback pilot for Empty Nest that included Paul Dooley and Rita Moreno hijacking the show to set up their own series. It eventually came about with a heavily augmented cast and scenario.

The first four or five seasons of this show rank among the all-time funniest programs that ever aired on TV. The mix of actresses/characters was top-notch, the stories were both hysterical and yet touching and the dialogue teemed with unbelievably clever and humorous dialogue. Not long after director Terry Hughes departed (long referred to as “The Fifth Golden Girl”) to concentrate on a feature film career, the tone of the show gradually shifted and it became far more arch, knowing, crass and silly. There were still magic moments to be had (and certainly the two-part finale was sensational as well as touching), but things had veered a bit too far off course for this viewer’s satisfaction. (Sophia jumping off the roof of a mansion into a pile of leaves? Miles having been in the witness protection program all along? The list goes on…)

It didn’t help that each of the actresses actually began to look progressively younger and more fit as the show wore on instead of the other way around! Blanche’s vain attitude and self-indulgence was far more hilarious when it was obvious that she didn’t fit her own descriptions of herself. Once Rue genuinely started to look sensational, her caustic remarks took on an unwelcome edge. Likewise, Rose got to be extra idiotic, Dorothy indulged in some needlessly goofy scenarios and Sophia was far too “in on the joke” and didn’t resemble her character as initially conceived at all. Once again, Bea Arthur decided to depart the show, but, thankfully, each actresses managed to snag an Emmy apiece.

Rue’s Emmy speech was memorable in that she recounted the way that casting directors had encouraged her to give up any hope of a film & TV career because she wasn’t photogenic. It was a poignant and memorable moment for her and her fans.

The remaining ladies took part in a horribly misguided spin-off of The Golden Girls called The Golden Palace. By now, the chemistry was almost completely drained (the trio was often referred to "a table with one missin leg") and it was quietly cancelled after one season.

Rue, however, remained busy. She portrayed The Mother Superior in televised productions of Nunsense and Nunsense 2: The Sequel and had a string of well-received TV movies called Children of the Bride, Baby of the Bride and Mother of the Bride. Though she had made some brief forays onto Broadway early in her career, she had two notable projects later on in which she was featured as a “name,” a revival of The Women and a stint in Wicked, both, of course, featuring her in showy supporting roles. In a bit of startling casting against type, she portrayed a severely wounded military academy instructor in the sci-fi, CGI extravaganza Starship Troopers!

A treacherous and debilitating battle with breast cancer came her way in the late-90s, but she licked it with her by-now customary determination and aplomb. This, and her career and marital exploits, was examined in her autobiography My First Five Husbands. McClanahan has said that it took some getting used to for her play the man-hungry Blanche Devereaux. However, she revealed herself to be no slouch at landing men throughout her life (she is currently on hubby number six and Bea Arthur was quoted as having said, “Rue always puts on a great wedding!”), even taking part in a steamy affair with a pre-fame Brad Davis of Midnight Express. A lifelong animal lover (and tireless advocate for them and for other charitable causes), she also related some of her feelings in that area.

In 2008, a shockingly heavy and bloated-looking McClanahan appeared in twelve episodes of the cable series Sordid Lives, a prequel to the chicken-fried play and movie of the same name. Though it wasn’t always easy to see the formerly vivacious and sassy actress in a part like this, she retained her sense of comic abandon, her character enjoying a late in life love affair with a neighbor who had no legs!

Anyone who enjoys Rue and who has a couple of hours to spare should check out her zesty, candid and amusingly snarky Archive of American Television interviews, presented in 5 parts. Her entire career is recounted and she pulls no punches in discussing the projects and personalities she dealt with and/or enjoyed over the decades. She’s delightful throughout, practically giving a performance of a sort, though she’s clearly shooting from the heart and why not?!

She does lament to a degree the fact that she has played hundreds and hundreds of roles in her life and yet will always be “Blanche,” but what a role to be remembered for, and ultimately, she understands that. It’s not possible to add up the laughs she’s given me over the years through her work as that character.


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