– DAVID BAUDER

The Associated Press

NEW YORK – Rue McClanahan, the Emmy-winning actress who brought the sexually liberated Southern belle Blanche Devereaux to life on the hit TV series “The Golden Girls,” has died. She was 76.

Her manager, Barbara Lawrence, said McClanahan died of a brain hemorrhage at 1 a.m. Thursday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

She had undergone treatment for breast cancer in 1997 and later lectured to cancer support groups on “aging gracefully.” In 2009, she had heart bypass surgery.

McClanahan had an active career in off-Broadway and regional stages in the 1960s before she was tapped for TV in the 1970s as the key best-friend character on the hit series “Maude,” starring Beatrice Arthur. After that series ended in 1978, McClanahan landed the role as Aunt Fran on “Mama’s Family” in 1983.

But her most loved role came in 1985 when she co-starred with Arthur, Betty White and Estelle Getty in “The Golden Girls,” a runaway hit that broke the sitcom mold by focusing on the foibles of four aging — and frequently eccentric — women living together in Miami.

“Golden Girls” aimed to show “that when people mature, they add layers,” she told The New York Times in 1985. “They don’t turn into other creatures. The truth is we all still have our child, our adolescent, and your young woman living in us.”

Blanche, who called her father “Big Daddy,” was a frequent target of roommates Dorothy, Rose and the outspoken Sophia (Getty), who would fire off zingers at Blanche such as “Your life’s an open blouse.”

White called McClanahan a close and dear friend.

“I treasured our relationship,” said White, who was working in Los Angeles on the set of her TV Land comedy “Hot in Cleveland” on Thursday. “It hurts more than I even thought it would, if that’s even possible.”

McClanahan snagged an Emmy for her work on the show in 1987. In an Associated Press interview that year, McClanahan said Blanche was unlike any other role she had ever played.

“Probably the closest I’ve ever done was Blanche DuBois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at the Pasadena Playhouse,” she said. “I think, too, that’s where the name came from, although my character is not a drinker and not crazy.”

After “The Golden Girls” was canceled in 1992, McClanahan, White and Getty reprised their roles in a short-lived spinoff, “Golden Palace.”

McClanahan continued working in television, on stage and in film, appearing in the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau vehicle “Out to Sea” and as the biology teacher in “Starship Troopers.”

She was born Eddi-Rue McClanahan in Healdton, Okla., and graduated with honors from the University of Tulsa with a degree in German and theater arts.

McClanahan’s acting career began on the stage, and in 1970 she won an Obie — the off-Broadway version of the Tony — for “Who’s Happy Now,” playing the “other woman” in a family drama.

She had appeared only sporadically on television until producer Norman Lear tapped her for a guest role on “All in the Family” in 1971.

She went from there to a regular role in the “All in the Family” spinoff “Maude,” playing Vivian, the neighbor and best friend to Arthur in the starring role.

McClanahan was married six times: to Tom Bish, with whom she had a son, Mark Bish; actor Norman Hartweg; Peter D’Maio; Gus Fisher; and Tom Keel. She married husband Morrow Wilson on Christmas Day in 1997.

She called her 2007 memoir “My First Five Husbands And the Ones Who Got Away.”