'Golden Girl' Rue McClanahan dies at 76

Rue McClanahan, an actress best known for her Emmy-winning role as the sassy, man-crazy Southern belle Blanche Devereaux on the hit TV series "The Golden Girls," has died. She was 76.

McClanahan died early Thursday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital of a brain hemorrhage, according to her manager, Barbara Lawrence.

Last year McClanahan had heart-bypass surgery and in 1997 was treated for breast cancer.

Betty White, the lone surviving star of "The Golden Girls," said in a statement: "Rue was a close and dear friend. I treasured our relationship. It hurts more than I even thought it would, if that's possible."

In the early 1970s, McClanahan segued from the New York stage to Hollywood after TV producer Norman Lear spotted her in a dramatic role in "Tonight in Living Color," which had a brief run off-Broadway in 1969. He cast her as Vivian, Bea Arthur's ditzy best friend, in "Maude," which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1978.

When "The Golden Girls" debuted on NBC in 1985, Los Angeles Times critic Howard Rosenberg praised the sitcom about four single retirees living together in Miami as a TV rarity, a comedy that offered a meaningful portrayal of post-middle-age women that was also "very funny." His only complaint was that McClanahan, then 51, looked too young for someone in her "golden" years.

An Oklahoma native, McClanahan was drawn to Blanche because she "thought a Southern belle would be fun to work on," she said in a 1986 interview.

The bawdy show became a massive hit, and in 1986 People magazine pronounced its four stars "the Charlie's Angels of a graying America."

She was born Feb. 21, 1934, in Healdton, Okla., and named Eddi-Rue McClanahan, a combination of the names of her parents. Her father, William Edwin McClanahan, was a builder and her mother, Dreda Rheua-Nell, a beautician.

At the University of Tulsa, she studied German and drama, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1956.

Married six times, she cheekily called her 2007 memoir, "My First Five Husbands ... And the Ones Who Got Away."

In 1997, she married Morrow Wilson. The couple separated last year.

Besides Wilson, she is survived by her son, Mark Bish of Austin, and her sister Melinda L. McClanahan of Silver City, N.M.