Over 20 years ago, Rue McClanahan joined the ranks of television legends with a turn as 50-something sexpot Blanche Devereux on The Golden Girls. And just like Blanche, Rue’s always been quite the man-eater herself: The septuagenarian is on her sixth husband (and is happy, thank you very much). She reveals all — or almost all — about her love life in her new autobiography, My First Five Husbands… And the Ones Who Got Away, which just hit stores. In an interview with EW.com, she dishes on her new book, The Golden Girls, and the other projects she’s got in the hopper.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve always considered yourself a writer, but why write this now? What made it the right time to dig through your love life?
RUE MCCLANAHAN: Friends would always say, ”You write just like you talk, you really should write a book.” But I didn’t have anything to write about. As the time passed, I wrote a musical set in ancient Athens called Oedipus Shmedipus, As Long as You Love Your Mother, and several short stories. I finally succumbed to all those suggestions of creating my own story, and a couple years ago I felt that I might have some things to say.
What was so fun about it?
I looked forward to it like you’d look forward to eating a Thanksgiving dinner. My life was so full of content and it was so interesting to me to try to say things in a colorful way.
But your life has been so documented and profiled throughout the years. Did you feel like this was your chance to really tell the world what you were thinking?
The whole point is to help other 20-year-olds not get into the same mess that I got into. Don’t do it! Oh, God — six husbands. When it comes to human relationships, my advice is to operate out of love. And I mean, not romantic love. But the bigger love. The real love. Operate from there. And come from giving. Don’t come from needing to take. Don’t come from panic and need and desperation. That will not get you a good relationship. I learned that the hard way.
But it’s so easy to kid yourself about love and relationships. Was that part of your problem?
Oh, I was a master of whitewash! I could whitewash the ugliest fence. But it needed to be cleaned first. It needed to be examined. And it needed to be looked at with a microscope. Well, at least with a magnifying glass. You got to really look at a situation and say now, is this really likely to work out? Or am I just grabbing at a straw? That’s what this book is about.
The book dishes enormously about your love life. Were you worried about dredging up stories about exes?
The one thing you can safely do when you’re telling a true story — or at least, the way you remember it — is be very candid about yourself. You can’t be all that candid sometimes about other people if they’re still living because you can get embroiled in legalities. Two of my relationships were especially bad, but I think I was rough enough on those two husbands at the time. I was rough enough on them without telling everything about them.
So you held back some?
That’s what’s wonderful about writing! You don’t have to tell every damn thing that ever happened! I must have 25 stories that didn’t make it into the book because it would have been 600 pages long.
So maybe you’ll use that stuff to do a second book?
I’m thinking about doing another book, but it won’t be about myself. It would have to be my take on things though, because I’m not a novelist. I don’t have that kind of complex, involved grasp of things that you have to have to be a novelist. That’s a juggling act with about 24 balls.
Since we’re talking about writing, did you ever have input on the writing or scripts of The Golden Girls?
Actually, it’s funny, the actors didn’t get to help writers. They were strict about keeping us in separate camps. And the way it worked was, I would say — being a writer myself — ‘This line really doesn’t feel right coming from Blanche. I really think Sophia should say this.’ Betty [White] would do pretty much the same thing. And Bea [Arthur] would say things like, ‘There’s just something, I don’t know, but it’s just not right.’ However, Estelle [Getty], the dear, didn’t contribute in that way because she was so out-of-her-level, above her head. You know, she’d never done anything this high-powered in television.
Well, from what I’ve read, she even had a hard time knowing the lines that she needed to know for the show.
Oh yeah, she was very, very uncomfortable.
But it doesn’t come off in the show at all. How was a huge secret like that masked?
We stayed after the audience left and reshot all of her scenes. It was grinding. It was hard. Poor little thing — Estelle was so humiliated and embarrassed. And then when we went on to do Golden Palace, she didn’t have that problem anymore. And I began to think perhaps it was Bea Arthur’s influence because she wasn’t on Golden Palace. I think she was somehow unconsciously intimidated by Bea.
How interesting. Bea is an intimidating person, but to make Estelle forget her lines?
You might also remember Estelle did Empty Nest for a couple of years after that. She was a regular, and she didn’t have any problem. Maybe it wasn’t Bea, maybe it was just a coincidence that once Bea was out of the picture, Estelle wasn’t scared anymore.
Do young people tell you all the time that they loved your show? I was a grandma’s boy and was always at her house on the weekend, so watched it with her every Saturday night.
You know, that gives me an insight that I hadn’t had. Yes, I have heard oh so many scores of times people say, ‘I watched it with my grandmother. I watched it with my grandmother. I watched it with my grandmother.’ Now I understand — it was the weekend. And kids were with their grandmothers.
You did Wicked a while back. Was it a blast to be a part of a big Broadway musical like that?
No! Not the thing that I want to do. I wanted to get that behind me — a big Broadway musical. It’s boooooring! You know how deep musical characters are? I want to act if I’m on the stage. I want stuff to delve into and problems to solve and relationships to explore.
Now you’re writing a second musical, Cobra Island. How’s that going?
I’m hoping to do a workshop after the book tour and then move to a good off-Broadway venue. It’s a very funny and offbeat musical set in the 1930s and most of it takes place on a South Sea island with an evil queen, who’s operating under the influence of the volcano god. She’s just a mess. And it’s got a couple of newspaper reporters from Nebraska who search this queen out because they think it would be a great story. And it’s just full of nonsense and mischief.
And you’re working on a new sitcom, too?
Yes, Ryan’s Life on Here! TV. Ryan is 15 and lives in Los Angeles. I play his flamboyant grandmother — she’s not quite a loose cannon — but she’s a very colorful character. Ryan is questioning his sexuality. And she’s his only confidant. I live with the family. So it’s a beautiful character, very funny, and very well written. We’ll probably shoot later this summer.
How interesting! Are people gonna love it as much as The Golden Girls?
It’s the best script I’ve come across since The Golden Girls. And, believe me — I can say that. I’ve been given a damn lot of pilot scripts since then!