Rue McClanahan may be best known for her award-winning role as Blanche Devereaux on NBC’s The Golden Girls, but she was an actress who worked on projects that challenged the status quo before, such as Maude and Mama’s Family. Beyond those roles, she also backed political and social causes in which she believed.
Eddi-Rue McClanahan was born on February 21, 1934, in Healdton, a small town in Oklahoma. Most of the population in the 1930 census was white, but the second largest ethnic group was Native American. McClanahan was born with both Irish and Choctaw ancestors. Her family moved to the larger town of Ardmore, 24 miles away, where she got her first taste of acting. She won school awards for theater but was also a good student who was inducted into the National Honor Society. At the University of Tulsa she graduated cum laude with a double Bachelor of Arts in German and Theatre.
McClanahan made her television debut as Mrs. Braylee in the serial TV show Love of Life in 1951. Six years later, she made her professional theater debut at the Erie Playhouse in Pennsylvania in “Inherit the Wind.” McClanahan was accepted as a lifetime member of the Actors Studio, an accomplishment that required her to go through a series of auditions with them.
McClanahan’s success in primetime television involved several episodes and series that tackled challenging subjects. In 1972, she was in an episode of All in the Family titled “The Bunkers and the Swingers,” which looked at the practice of consensual non-monogamy. Of course, the episode was played for laughs, but still, for many viewers it would have been one of their first exposures to this lifestyle.
The television series Maude was groundbreaking on many social, economic, and political topics. McClanahan played Maude’s best friend Vivian Cavender Harmon for five seasons. The character has been described as “scatterbrained,” and yet it was clear in the series that she was both an academic and an athlete. This character went through a divorce and remarriage and was portrayed as loyal, liberal, and quite interested in sex.
McClanahan’s next two big television roles overlapped. She played an uptight spinster sister to Thelma Harper on Mama’s Family from 1983 to 1990. During a break when that show was being restructured, McClanahan took the role that she is best known for: Blanche Devereaux on The Golden Girls from 1985 to 1992 as well as The Golden Palace from 1992-1993. Though Devereaux was quite sexually active, she was in no way stupid; the series addressed the challenges of a sexually active older woman and the risk of HIV when both subjects were nearly ignored during the years the series originally aired. The Golden Girls is credited with being important to many LGBTQ people because it tackled these issues with comedy but also with facts and empathy.
Beyond her acting roles, McClanahan was known in many circles as a loyal Democrat who held candidates to high standards. She was a fan of Barack Obama but refused to support John Kerry because of his hunting. She was also one of the first celebrity supporters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and was even vegetarian in her personal life. She was a supporter of Alley Cat Allies, a group focused on improving the lives of cats, and made a televised public service announcement for the group before her death in 2010. In 2009, she participated in "Defying Inequality: The Broadway Concert – A Celebrity Benefit for Equal Rights" in support of gay rights and marriage equality.
In 2007, her memoir My First Five Husbands ... and the Ones Who Got Away was published. The book shared stories about her life from her childhood through her multiple marriages, her family, and her career.
McClanahan died after suffering a brain hemorrhage after a minor stroke on June 3, 2010, at the age of 76.