The stars of had such incredible chemistry onscreen, it's hard to believe they were anything less than the best of friends in real life. But in the 25 years since the show ended, several candid interviews have revealed an underlying tension — and, at times, downright hostility — among the actresses, especially between Betty White and Bea Arthur.
There's no doubt both stars played a role in the drama, but even Arthur's son admits the woman who portrayed substitute teacher Dorothy Zbornak was not the most diplomatic person.
"My mom unknowingly carried the attitude that it was fun to have somebody to be angry at," her eldest son, Matthew Saks, told . White became her "nemesis," the person she could roll her eyes about, he added. (It's hard to imagine Arthur didn't take pleasure whenever Dorothy's lines included snapping, "Oh, shut up, Rose!" at White's character.)
"She was not that fond of me," White said of Arthur in a 2011 talk, the reported. "She found me a pain in the neck sometimes. It was my positive attitude — and that made Bea mad sometimes. Sometimes if I was happy, she'd be furious!"
Working long hours together over the course of the show's seven-year run, as well as having markedly different acting philosophies, added fuel to the fire.
The former star of All in the Family spinoff Maude, "[Arthur] came from the old school of [television writer] Norman Lear where sitcoms were filmed like stage plays and done with up-close reactions," said Jim Colucci, author of . "[White] was from the Mary Tyler Moore school where everything is a very subtle character moment. The jokes are more gentle."
Described as a "very eccentric woman" by costar Rue McClanahan, Arthur was a complicated person with numerous quirks. She hated wearing shoes so much that it was in her contract that she could walk around set barefoot if she promised not to sue the producers if she was injured as a result. She also hated birds and chewing gum.
"If you were chewing gum on the set, she would try to have you fired," Colucci told .
Betty White's habit of talking with the live audience between takes especially irked Arthur, who preferred to stay concentrated and in character, either waiting in place or backstage.
"Sometimes Betty would go out and smile and chat with the audience and literally go and make friends with the audience. Which is a nice thing — a lot of them have come from all over the country and are fans," Matthew Saks told . "I think my mom didn't dig that. It's more about being focused or conserving your energy. It's just not the right time to talk to fans between takes. Betty was able to do it and it didn't seem to affect her. But it rubbed my mom the wrong way."
There was a time, however, said Saks, when White and Arthur were friends. They lived near each other and would commute to work together. In fact, in an archived , McClanahan said Arthur wouldn't go to lunch with her unless White also joined them. So what eventually caused a rift between the women?
Some people speculate there was jealousy over White's Emmy win. Although all of the women eventually won Emmys, and all were nominated for the show's first season, White was the first to win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a comedy series in 1986. According to McClanahan's 2007 memoir, , Arthur was angry that White had won, and .
"My mom was the real deal," Saks explained. "I think she felt she was more of an actress than Betty. Mom came from Broadway. Betty starred on a game show at one point."
Arthur's resentment grew when the show's writers began making a habit of what Golden Girls biographer Colucci calls "Dorothy bashing." Insulting commentary about Rose's intelligence or Sophia's promiscuity "could roll off [White's and McClanahan's] backs because they were not like their characters," said Colucci, but "the things that were said about Dorothy were that she was big and ugly. And that wears on an actress after a while."
Once the final season began taping, Arthur "made it very clear that she was done," said Colucci. The show's quality was beginning to go downhill, she believed, and she wanted to go out on top.
Sadly, White, age 95, is now the last surviving cast member. Estelle Getty was already beginning to show signs of Lewy body dementia, the disease that killed her in 2008, before the show went off air in 1992. Arthur passed away at age 86 of cancer in 2009, and McClanahan died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2010.
Although White and Arthur's feud seems dramatic from the outside looking in, it may have been unavoidable, given Arthur's standoffish nature. "My mom wasn't really close to anybody," Saks told in 2015. "I'm not saying she was a loner, but she just liked to go home and read the paper."