Catching Up With The Golden Girls' Susan Harris
By Dustin Fitzharris
The Golden Girls, which aired from 1985 to 1992 and won two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series, wasn't writer Susan Harris's first hit. Prior to giving 'birth' to Dorothy (Bea Arthur), Blanche (Rue McClanahan), Rose (Betty White), and Sophia (Estelle Getty), she wrote for Love, American Style; All in the Family; and Maude, which also starred Arthur and McClanahan. She also created Soap in 1977, one of the first prime time shows to feature a leading gay character, played by Billy Crystal. After the success of The Golden Girls, the Mount Vernon, N.Y., native went on to create its spin-offs Empty Nest and the ill-fated The Golden Palace with her production company, Witt/Thomas/Harris. Harris largely retired from television in 1991.
Today the mother of five and grandmother of four resides in Los Angeles with her husband of 27 years, producer Paul Junger Witt. Having won countless awards, including the Paddy Chayefsky Television Laurel Award, the Writer's Guild's highest award for television writing, Harris is still surprised about how revered The Golden Girls remains today. Just weeks away from her 70th birthday, she chatted with Out about the show's 25th anniversary.
Out: Can you believe it's been 25 years since The Golden Girls premiered?
Susan Harris: No, I can't. In fact, I didn't know it until you told us.
Is it true that your husband, Paul, came home and said, 'There's this idea, but you're not going to want to do it,' and your response was 'That's right, I don't want to do anything, but what is it?'
No, what had happened was he had gone to the network with another writer and another idea, and the network didn't want to do whatever it was he went with and said, 'We have an idea. We thought maybe a series about older women who live in Miami.' The writer that Paul was with said, 'Oh, I'm not really interested.' Paul said, 'I think I know somebody who might be.'
But you had told your husband that you had quit television, right?
I had told him prior to that I had retired. I didn't want to do television anymore. Then he came home and said 'Older women in Miami,' and I said, 'Of course. Yes.'
What were those initial moments of being involved with the show like?
What I thought was older women, the network and I were not on the same page at the time. I thought older women -- 60, 70, 80. Older to the network seemed to mean 40-50. We casted the way we did, and we never discussed age.
What was your process for developing the characters?
The process is always the same, and it's something that's very hard to describe. We sat around and we talked. I really can't tell you how these ideas come up. I'm not intentionally trying to make it mysterious. You just do it. You draw in all walks of life from people you've met. I know one of the characters, Dorothy, I gave her Bea Arthur's voice [when I was writing]. This was before we had any casting in mind. Not that I thought we were ever going to get Bea Arthur, but it was just her voice and her tone that I had in mind. It's much easier for me to write when I can think of somebody. I always try to have an actor in mind, even though it's never going to be that actor. We were lucky enough to get Bea.
Are any of the characters modeled after someone in your life?
I would say there's a bit of my grandmother in Sophia.
All of the ladies have talked about how fantastic that first script was. They said they just knew it was going to be a hit show. Did you know it was going to be a hit?
I think it was Bruce Paltrow (television and film director and producer and father of Gwyneth Paltrow), who was with us and saw it at the upfronts, which was called "selling season" back then. He said, 'You've done the perfect pilot.' That was the only pilot they screened then for the buyers. They would choose only one pilot and show it in its entirety. The reaction in that room -- you just knew. You knew that you had a hit.