Rue McClanahan, the Emmy-winning actress who brought the sexually liberated Southern belle Blanche Devereaux to life on the hit TV series The Golden Girls, has died aged 76.
Her manager Barbara Lawrence said McClanahan died of a stroke. She had undergone treatment for breast cancer in 1997 and later lectured to cancer support groups on "ageing gracefully". In 2009, she had heart bypass surgery.
McClanahan had an active career in off-Broadway and regional stage shows in the 1960s before she was tapped for TV in the 1970s for the key best friend character on the hit series Maude, starring Beatrice Arthur. After that series ended in 1978, McClanahan landed the role as Aunt Fran on Mama's Family in 1983.
But her most loved role came in 1985 when she co-starred with Arthur, Betty White and Estelle Getty in The Golden Girls, a runaway hit that broke the sitcom mold by focusing on the foibles of four ageing - and frequently eccentric - women living together in Miami.
Golden Girls aimed to show "that when people mature, they add layers", she told The New York Times in 1985. "They don't turn into other creatures. The truth is we all still have our child, our adolescent, and your young woman living in us."
Blanche, who called her father Big Daddy, was a frequent target of roommates Dorothy (Arthur), Rose (White) and the outspoken Sophia (Getty), who would fire off zingers at Blanche such as: "Your life's an open blouse."
Fellow Golden Girl White called McClanahan a close and dear friend.
"I treasured our relationship," said White, who was working on the set of her TV Land comedy Hot In Cleveland on Thursday. "It hurts more than I even thought it would, if that's even possible."
McClanahan snagged an Emmy for her work on the show in 1987. In an Associated Press interview that year, McClanahan said Blanche was unlike any other role she had ever played.
"Probably the closest I've ever done was Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Pasadena Playhouse," she said. "I think, too, that's where the name came from, although my character is not a drinker and not crazy."