Worried that McClanahan and White were being asked to play roles too similar to their previous TV personae (McClanahan played Arthur's ditzy best friend Vivian on Maude; White won two Emmys as the vampy Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Sandrich asked the women to consider a last-minute switch at their auditions.
SANDRICH: I said to [Rue], ''You're really wonderful, but I don't believe for a second that you're innocent. Would you read Blanche?''
WHITE: Ruesy took Blanche out into orbit where I never would have gone. She flew off like a butterfly with that role.
MCCLANAHAN: I gave [Blanche] the assurance that my sister has always had: Walk into a group of men and just lay 'em low! I was using this phony accent that sounded like a cross between British and Southern and cornball.
Producers wanted Arthur to play Dorothy, but first they saw Elaine Stritch, who recounted a disastrous tryout in her 2002 Broadway show Elaine Stritch at Liberty. ''She just didn't have her act together,'' says Littlefield. ''It was sad.'' Under the impression that Arthur didn't want to participate Arthur says she doesn't recall the specifics Harris asked McClanahan if she could persuade her old castmate to take the role.
ARTHUR: I flipped when I read the script! After all of the crap I'd been sent, here was something so bright and adult and fabulously funny. I guess they assumed that I didn't want to do it.
MCCLANAHAN: I said, ''Bea, what's the matter with you? This is only going to be the biggest hit TV has seen since I don't know when.'' And Bea said [deepening her voice], ''Ruuuue, I don't want to play Maude and Vivian meet Betty White.'' And I said, ''No! Betty's playing the Vivian and I'm the Sue Ann!'' ''Oh,'' she said, ''now, that's interesting,'' and then hung up.
Thomas, meanwhile, spotted Getty playing Harvey Fierstein's pushy mother on Broadway in Torch Song Trilogy, and asked her to try out. The TV novice nailed her audition.
THOMAS: She was frigging brilliant! I could not breathe when she read her lines.
II. LADIES FIRST
With the cast in place, the pilot was shot in the spring of 1985.
ARTHUR: Everyone fell in love that day. I fell in love with the relationship between Dorothy and Sophia. That was one of the comic greats of all time.
WHITE: You don't get many evenings like that in this business. I still get goose bumps just thinking about it.
SANDRICH: I had to keep cutting to Bea's reactions because once she gets the camera on her and the laughs start, you just leave it there. I had to be careful not to give her too much of the show.
Producers eventually nixed Coco, who appears only in the pilot. ''It was an embarrassment of riches,'' says Harris. ''We didn't even have enough time to write for the women.'' NBC revamped its Saturday lineup and paired the series with another newcomer, 227. The block worked, grabbing huge ratings and was surprisingly popular among young viewers.
TERRY HUGHES (director, 1985-90): For kids, it was like watching a bunch of naughty grannies. A whole generation recognized their own grandmothers on that screen.
HARRIS: They especially loved Estelle. Here was a woman talking back to her daughter and giving her so much grief.
MCCLANAHAN: I got oodles of letters from kids who wanted to move in with us. My youngest fan was a 3-year-old who stopped me in an elevator. Now, you know that he wasn't catching on to the double entendres.