Born in Oklahoma during the Great Depression to a beautician and a building contractor, Eddi-Rue McClanahan was of Irish and Choctaw Indian ancestry. She became interested in the entertainment field when her mother began taking her to dance classes. Her earliest career dreams included running a dance academy. In high school, she was voted "Most Likely To Succeed."
Unlike many young women of her generation, she went to college at the University of Tulsa, earning a Bachelor of Arts in German and theater. She was also part of campus Greek culture, active in the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. After college she relocated to the northeast, and made her theatrical debut at Pennsylvania's Erie Playhouse. She played a role in the play Inherit the Wind. This role led to others in off-Broadway theaters, but it took her more than ten years to move from off-Broadway to Broadway itself.
In 1969 she was hired to play Sally Weber in the original production of Jimmy Shine, alongside Dustin Hoffman. That success led to television work, where she played Caroline Johnson on Another World. McClanahan's character created notoriety and controversy, as babysitter of twins, Caroline Johnson, fell in love with the babies' father, and began to slowly poison the mother. What was meant to be a brief bit role turned into more than one year tenure on the soap opera set, concluding with Caroline's conviction of attempted murder and kidnapping.
McClanahan then moved to the daytime drama, Where The Heart Is, where she portrayed Margaret Jardin. In the late 70s she moved to small parts on prime time television, including recurring roles on Maude. Her greatest claim to fame was a result of signing on to play a man-obsessed Southern belle named Blanche Devereaux. McClanahan's Blanche owned a house where she rented rooms to other women, including Dorothy Zbornak (played by Bea Arthur), Rose Nylund (Betty White), and Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty). The series was titled The Golden Girls, and it was an instant hit, running from 1985 to 1992.
McClanahan was awarded an Emmy in 1985 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. After the series ended, McClanahan continued to work, accepting both film and television series roles. In her personal life, McClanahan was an outspoken defender of animal rights, including becoming one of the first celebrities to publicly support People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She was also a staunch vegetarian. In 2007, she released her autobiography, entitled My First Five Husbands...and the Ones Who Got Away. Indeed, McClanahan knew a thing or two about marriage. Her first marriage was very brief, but long enough to result in the birth of a child. She next married someone who was more a friend than husband material, and so that marriage ended in divorce as well. Two subsequent marriages also ended in divorce.
Later in life she developed health problems, including gall bladder disease and Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome, a condition which is almost always fatal. During the 1990s, McClanahan at last found love, with an actor/producer. On the heels of the new relationship came bad news: McClanahan was diagnosed with breast cancer, a battle she won. In late 2009 McClanahan underwent triple bypass surgery. During her recovery she suffered from a minor stroke, but her prognosis remained good. However, in June 2010 she suffered a second stroke and a brain hemorrhage. She died with her son and other family members by her side.