Why Burt Reynolds's cameo on 'The Golden Girls' mattered so much

Raechal Leone Shewfelt
Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Burt Reynolds guests on “The Golden Girls.” (Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Just like cheesecake or Rose’s stories about St. Olaf, Burt Reynolds, who died Thursday at 82, was an essential part of The Golden Girls.

His cameo in an early episode of the classic sitcom, which was about four older women navigating their post-marriage lives together and ran from 1985 to 1992, was responsible for one of the show’s most memorable moments. Reynolds’s name also was sprinkled throughout the series, often in reference to his real-life Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Jupiter, Fla., roughly 90 miles from the characters’ hometown of Miami. But “Mr. Burt Reynolds” (spoken in the thick Southern accent that actress Rue McClanahan used for her character, Blanche Devereaux) was more than just set dressing. His role was about what he meant to the women — including Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), Rose Nylund (Betty White), and Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) — who were senior citizens, sure, but hadn’t yet retired from life and certainly still took notice of a handsome man.

“I think that [Burt Reynolds] was shorthand for virile, masculine sex symbol,” Jim Colucci, the author of Golden Girls Forever, told Yahoo Entertainment. “These were women that the writers were always trying to show were still active in every way, including sexually, and having vibrancy in every way, including sexually. And so, what better shorthand to show they were interested in a hunk than to name the hunk of the day, who was Burt.”

Burt Reynolds pictured in July 1980 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Ron Eisenberg/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

As Colucci wrote in his 2016 book, Reynolds’s appearance on the show was a big deal for other reasons too. It was the show’s first major cameo, featured on “Ladies of the Evening,” the second episode of the show’s second season, which aired on Oct. 4, 1986.

In the episode, Blanche surprises the women by telling them she won three tickets (poor Sophia is left out) to attend a movie premiere and meet Reynolds afterward. Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy head out for their big night, only to be mistaken for prostitutes. It’s Sophia who eventually nabs their tickets, after the others end up in jail, and makes fast friends with Reynolds. The star himself makes his only physical appearance in the final seconds of the episode, when he shows up at the house to pick up Sophia for lunch and quickly delivers a memorable line, “Which one’s the slut?” — in the most Burt Reynolds way. Colucci calls it “one of the most beloved moments in the entire series,” a moment that ends with Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy all raising their hands and saying “I am.”

Reynolds’s cameo was fun for viewers, as well as the cast and crew of the show.

“Because they knew that they were, obviously, a hit in the ratings,” Colucci said, “but they started to hear throughout this first season and into the second season that there were celebrities out there watching, and a lot of times, they would come into the office, particularly Betty White, because she had been in Hollywood so long, she was so social and very connected, and so often she would come in and say to everybody, “Guess what? Guess who I heard really likes our show?”

In a May 1992 episode, Estelle Getty, left, Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan share their favorite dessert. (Photo: Joseph Del Valle/NBCU Photo Bank)

And every time, they’d be, “Wow, that person watches us!’ Because, again, they’d been making this kind of in a vacuum in a way, and then they were so honored to hear when big celebrities liked them.”

When Reynolds, just a few years away from box office hits such as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Cannonball Run, approved, they reached out to him to see if he’d be interested in coming on. It was much rarer in those days to see a movie star on a TV show, successful or not, but it wasn’t impossible.

“And I remember Rue McClanahan telling me that that was one of those moments where, when Burt said, ‘Yes, I will do the show,’ and came and did it, that they thought, ‘Hot damn, this show is really special. This is something,’” Colucci said of the actress, who died in 2010. “So it’s a watershed moment for a show.”

The episode was the fifth-most-watched program of the week, according to the national Nielsen ratings. It had come at an opportune time for Reynolds as well.

The suave star of The Longest Yard and many other movies was eager to show that he was healthy and ready to work, following rumors that AIDS, at the height of panic over it, had caused his physical decline. In reality, Reynolds had suffered an injury while filming City Heat with Clint Eastwood in 1984 — he’d been mistakenly hit in the face with a real chair instead of a prop one — and dropped 40 pounds because it hurt to eat. He was also, by that time, just past his early-career prime.

The girls didn’t mind one bit.

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