Though Estelle Getty was the second-youngest Golden Girl (and had to wear makeup and a wig to appear older than Bea Arthur), she is the first one to pass away. I grew up watching The Golden Girls and she was my favourite character, so it really gets me down.
In many ways, she was the key to the success of that show, not only because she was so popular — and it was quite an achievement for a little-known actress to steal a show away from three well-established sitcom players — but because she balanced out the show. Under normal circumstances, Bea Arthur would have dominated the show completely (she certainly expected to dominate it); Rue McClanahan was used to playing second banana to Arthur from the Maude days, and Betty White had been primarily a supporting player, albeit a scene-stealing one, for many years. But Sophia not only became unexpectedly popular, she became a character who could actually intimidate a Bea Arthur character, which not only brought balance to their scenes together, but freed the other two characters up to become stronger personalities.
She was a bit like the Mother Dexter character on Phyllis (who served the same function vis-a-vis Cloris Leachman that Getty served vis-a-vis Bea Arthur), and a bit like Carla on Cheers, but for those of us watching at the time, she was a new kind of character: an old woman who is not cool, not hip, does not call people “wiener” like the grandma on Mork and Mindy and is not kind and warm and sweet: she’s basically a good person, but she is angry, tough, vicious and has ties to organized crime.
I don’t think The Golden Girls was, in the purely objectve sense, a great show — the scripts were sometimes good, sometimes not, extremely uneven overall. (Susan Harris created the show but was not able to run it, and the show went through a bunch of different writers, leading to its famously lax continuity; the new writers could never remember the plot points that the previous writers had established.) The weaker scripts were saved by the four awesome characters and in particular Sophia/Getty, who could make just about any line funny through sheer rhythm.