“Bushman awaits!” — and that’s how Bushman liked it.
Whenever The Golden Girls’ man-crazy Blanche Devereaux found herself without a date, she’d call up her old standby, Mel Bushman, who was always waiting for her in the wings. Bushman liked things simple, and a little fantastic went a long way: His idea of a nice evening was to order a little pastrami and rent Out of Africa, a movie he and Blanche never managed to make it all the way through. Bushman was comforting and predictable, and when the mood struck Blanche — or when Out of Africa was on — she’d stay over.
Bushman’s relationship with Blanche wasn’t quite as serious or romantic as a committed boyfriend, nor was it as fleeting as one of her many one-night stands. Bushman was unique, not just to Blanche’s rolodex, but also to TV at that time. As author Steven W. Thrasher put it, “Pretty sure Blanche Devereaux and Mel Bushman were the first example of outright booty-call/fuck buddies/friends-with-benefits ever presented in a prime time sitcom, no?”
As a Nick-at-Nite devotee growing up who has watched a lot of classic sitcoms, I too struggle to find an example of a prime-time fuck buddy that predates the late-1980s/early-1990s example of Mel Bushman. Same goes for entertainment writer and TV historian Jim Colucci, author of Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai: Even if there were an earlier example of a friend-with-benefits on TV, Colucci says, you can be sure that Mel Bushman was the first at such an advanced age, as Bushman was in his 60s and Blanche was probably in her 60s as well (though she never did reveal her true age). “They kept it casual, which was very modern,” Colucci explains. “Bushman was the Saturday-night date if Blanche didn’t have someone, and when they tried to make their relationship more than that, it didn’t work.”
Despite being mentioned numerous times on the show, Mel Bushman only appeared onscreen in The Golden Girls once, in the Season Six episode “Melodrama.” In it, Blanche finds herself without a date and gives her standby a call, but Bushman can’t be reached. She even ventures to his place, fearing that he’s dead, only to find out he was simply on vacation. The scare makes Blanche realize just how important Bushman is to her, so she decides that she only wants to be with him.
Unfortunately, the relationship fails pretty much immediately as the laidback — and somewhat cheap — Bushman laments dropping $250 over a fancy dinner with Blanche. He also dreads the prospect of “having to wear a tie twice a week” for future dates. What was once a simple — yet still loving — relationship, now seemed jeopardized by its newfound complications. And, for fear that they’ll lose what they already had, they both decide to end their new relationship and go back to the way things were.
“It was a very mature, thoughtful story,” Colucci says. “Sitcoms, or bad sitcoms anyway, often get grief for being fluff, but like so much of The Golden Girls, Blanche’s relationship with Mel Bushman was something really human. I mean, isn’t it true of so many relationships — romantic or otherwise — that certain friends are good for certain things? Some friends are good travel buddies, while other friends, who you may adore, would be terrible to travel with. Some relationships can go the distance, while others are meant to remain at a certain level. That’s something you realize with age, and the characters in The Golden Girls had the strength and wisdom that comes with age.”
The ironic thing about Bushman is that, despite being an important part of Blanche’s life and being mentioned in many episodes, he was never actually meant to appear on the show. Akin to Norm’s wife Vera on Cheers, Bushman was intended to remain offscreen, but, as Colucci explains, “as it often happens when sitcoms enter their fifth, sixth or seventh seasons — when they’ve already written a hundred of these things — writers begin to look further afield for ideas. And so, then we get Alan King as Mel Bushman.”
King, for those unfamiliar, was a famous stand-up comedian and had been well-known for decades by the time he appeared on The Golden Girls in 1991. Back then, King represented a certain brand of Jewish comic who spent a lot of time playing the clubs in the Catskills — what was known as a “Borscht Belt” comedian. This reputation would also be why he was the perfect choice for the storied Bushman. “Alan King was great casting,” Colucci explains. “He’s a larger-than-life persona and we associate him with laughter and a good time, and that’s what Mel Bushman is, too. By getting King to play Bushman, it tells half the story right there.”
For King, there’s little doubt that his one episode of The Golden Girls represented a quick gig in an illustrious career, but within the context of the show — and for where sitcoms were at the time — his part was quietly a breakthrough, as was true of so much of The Golden Girls. As Colucci notes, “The Golden Girls wasn’t just the first to show an older example of friends with benefits, they were the first to do older anything. It was the show that finally put older people on television when it was viewed as some kind of marketing maxim that older people weren’t good for television.”
This was particularly true for older women. For fear of not attracting the desirable “young adult” demographic, sitcoms too often centered around young, beautiful people, and older actors often struggled to find work, or ended up playing two-dimensional caricatures of what we expect old people to be. The Golden Girls broke those boundaries by the virtue of its very existence, but it did so most boldly with Blanche. At a time on TV when a woman’s sex life rarely existed outside of the bounds of marriage, Blanche was unabashedly proud of her men and her sexuality. Sure, the others made jokes at her expense, but Blanche herself was never ashamed of who she was. (Also, as Colucci points out, Blanche was always one to tell tall tales, so her sexual adventurism could always be explained away to prudish audience members by saying that she was simply stretching the truth.)
As for Mel Bushman, he could have been an outright fabrication of Blanche’s had he not finally appeared in the show’s 146th episode. When he finally shows up, he’s just a fun, uncomplicated guy who happens to complain about the cost of dinner. And although he represents an important, breakthrough moment in TV history, perhaps to look so deeply into Mel Bushman kind of betrays what he is. After all, he’s not looking for that kind of depth — Bushman’s a pastrami-and-a-movie kind of guy, and that’s just how he likes it.