Ms. McClanahan was cast in "Maude" as Bea Arthur's hapless neighbor Vivian Harmon. The show ran for six seasons. A decade later, she was on equal footing with Arthur, playing one of the three spunky geriatric roommates in "The Golden Girls." Betty White completed the trio. Estelle Getty played Arthur's mother. The show ran from 1985 to 1992, providing an unusual second-act career for its silver-haired stars.
Unlike her "Maude" character, Ms. McClanahan's Blanche Deveraux was saucy, confident and sexual. Many of the one-liners on the show were directed at her libidinous adventures. Ms. McClanahan was nominated four times for an Emmy Award for "Golden Girls," winning once.
"People always ask me if I'm like Blanche," she once said. "And I say, 'Well, Blanche was an oversexed, self-involved, man-crazy, vain Southern Belle from Atlanta — and I'm not from Atlanta!'"
|photo by Joan Marcus|
In her latter years, Ms. McClanahan returned to the stage. She replaced Carole Shelley as Madame Morrible in the musical Wicked in May 2005, playing the role for eight months, and appeared in a Broadway revival of The Women. She did stints in summer stock and in The Vagina Monologues. She also appeared in productions of Annie, Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music as well as two productions of Nunsense. Born in Healdton, OK, her father was a road builder who moved from one project to another. After four years at the University of Tulsa, she moved to New York to work in the theatre. She studied acting with Uta Hagen. She began acting Off-Broadway in 1957.
Early Broadway credits including her 1966 debut The Best Laid Plans; Jimmy Shine, a John Sebastian musical starring Dustin Hoffman; Father's Day; and the David Rabe play Sticks and Bones. In the 1970s, she acted in Neil Simon's California Suite.
Off-Broadway shows included Who's Happy Now, for which she won an Obie Award; After-Play; Macbird!; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; Tonight! In Living Color!; Dark of the Moon; and Dylan.
Ms. McClanahan had a juicy early role on daytime television, playing Caroline Johnson on "Another World" in 1970 and 1971. While taking care of twins Michael and Marianne Randolph, Johnson fell in love with their father, John. To eliminate his inconvenient wife, she began poisoning the twins' mother.
Ms. McClanahan was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 1997, from which she completely recovered. She was married six times. (Her 2007 memoir was titled "My First Five Husbands...And the Ones Who Got Away.") Her final husband, Morrow Wilson, survives her, as does Mark Bish, her son from her first marriage, to Tom Bish.