Graduating cum laude from the University of Tulsa, Rue McClanahan studied acting with Uta Hagen and at the Perry-Mansfield school. After her professional debut with a Pennsylvania stock company in 1957, McClanahan headed to New York, where between acting gigs she worked as a waitress, took shorthand and sold blouses. Grabbing any opportunity available, she made her TV bow on a 1960 episode of the TV series Malibu Run, then appeared in a handful of exploitation films with come-hither titles like Five Minutes to Love (she played "Poochie, the girl from the shack," a credit she has since dropped from her resumé). She managed to find more prestigious work on the New York stage, starring in such well-received productions as MacBird, Jimmy Shine, Sticks and Bones and California Suite. She also played regular roles on the TV soap operas Another World and Where the Heart Is. A 1972 guest shot on Norman Lear's controversial series All in the Family led to her being cast as Vivian Harmon on Lear's popular sitcom Maude, a role she played until the series' cancellation in 1978. McClanahan's next project was her own starring series, 1978's Apple Pie, which unfortunately bit the dust after three shows. She went on to play the vitriolic Aunt Fran on the network version of Mama's Family (1983-85), then was co-starred with her Maude colleague Bea Arthur in The Golden Girls (1985-92). Her well-rounded portrayal of overly amorous museum worker Blanche Devereaux won her an 1986 Emmy award; she reprised the character in the Golden Girls spin-off Golden Palace (1992-93). The star of several made-for-TV movies, McClanahan co-produced and appeared in a brace of "dramedies," Mother of the Bride (1991) and Baby of the Bride (1992).
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Made professional stage debut at Pennsylvania's Erie Playhouse in 1957 in Inherit the Wind.
- Caught the attention of producer Norman Lear with her 1972 performance in Tonight in Living Color. Later that year, he offered her a guest spot on an episode of his sitcom All in the Family. Her work so impressed him that he cast her in Maude opposite Bea Arthur. The two would later star in The Golden Girls together.
- Reprised her Golden Girls role of Blanche Devereaux on the short-lived spin-off Golden Palace (1992-93).
- Produced and wrote the 1991 musical Oedipus Schmedipus, As Long As You Love Your Mother, which was staged in Los Angeles.
- A lifelong vegetarian and animal-rights advocate, she was one of the first celebrities to support PETA. In 2003, she wrote Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry a letter that stated that his pheasant hunting had cost him her vote.
- Wrote the 2007 autobiography My First Five Husbands... And the Ones Who Got Away.