Rue Mcclanahan 1934-2010
updated 06/21/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 06/21/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT
It was her last romance. On June 3 the actress passed away after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. "I will remember the laughs she gave us, because there were thousands," says her pal and Sordid Lives: the Series director Del Shores. "She was a legend."
Born in Healdton, Okla., McClanahan began acting in plays at age 4. She broke into television in the '70s, scoring her first major acting gig as Vivian in Maude. A decade later, she landed the role of a lifetime: Blanche in NBC's hit sitcom The Golden Girls, for which she won an Emmy in 1987. "In the hands of lesser actresses, Blanche's vanity and sexual appetite would have been off-putting," says Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, then a Golden Girls writer. McClanahan told PEOPLE last year that the show's success "was a damn piece of luck... . I thank the powers that be every day."
When Golden Girls wrapped in 1992, McClanahan continued working. "She was one of the most creative people," says her manager Barbara Lawrence. "She could play piano, loved to write and was constantly doing doodles." She also spoke of surviving breast cancer and fought tirelessly for animal rights.
Last November McClanahan suffered a debilitating stroke after undergoing triple bypass surgery. She rallied this spring and was looking forward to finishing a musical adaptation of her 2007 memoir My First Five Husbands ... But after complaining of exhaustion on May 31, she slipped into a coma. With family surrounding her (including her only child, Mark, 51), she was taken off life support three days later. "She was very gracious, warm and compassionate," says Lawrence. "She died with the dignity that she lived."