Beatrice Arthur, the witty television star in the hit shows Maude and The Golden Girls, and a Tony winner, died today at her Los Angeles home. Arthur, who was suffering from cancer, was 86.
Born Bernice Frankel on May 16, 1922, (1923 according to some sources) in New York City, Arthur – generally known as Bea Arthur – first caught critics’ attention with her performance in the 1954 off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera. Also onstage, she originated the role of the matchmaker Yente in Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, and two years later won a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Mame, in which she plays Mame’s buddy Vera Charles.
Although Arthur worked mostly onstage and on television throughout her 50+-year career, she did appear in a handful of films, including Cy Howard’s well-regarded Lovers and Other Strangers (1970), as an ardently Catholic mother who has one son (Michael Brandon) getting married and another (Joseph Hindy) getting a divorce; the critically panned box office flop Mame (1974), directed by Arthur’s then husband Gene Saks, and with Lucille Ball in the title role and Arthur (who should have played the lead) once again as Vera Charles; and the little-seen comedy For Better, For Worse (1995), as Jason Alexander’s mother.
On TV, Arthur first made her mark in the 1970s comedy series All in the Family, in which she played an outspoken, liberal feminist who frequently clashed with bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor).
“From the moment she showed up 30-some years ago in a guest spot on All in the Family,” wrote theater critic Ben Brantley in the New York Times, “it was clear she was a new sort of gal in television land: deep-voiced, acerbic, confrontational and liberal with a capital L. In a medium that thrives on the exchange of zingers, Ms. Arthur delivered put-downs with a withering majesty honed by years in the theater.”
Her All in the Family role was so successful that producer Norman Lear came up with Arthur’s own series, Maude (1972-1978), which earned the actress an Emmy in 1977 – and countless complaints when the character underwent an abortion shortly before the landmark US Supreme Court decision that made the procedure legal nationwide.
The same year she quit Maude, Arthur and director Gene Saks ended their 28-year marriage.
Arthur’s next major TV hit was The Golden Girls (1985-1992) – quite possibly the only American sitcom of the 1980s that was actually funny – featuring three middle-aged women (Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan) and the mother of one of them (tiny Estelle Getty as tall Arthur’s mom) sharing a Miami house. The humor was the result of the interaction between the four women – one witty (Arthur), one ditzy (White), one horny (McClanahan), one acerbic (Getty) – and their relationships with men and other disasters. (Getty, by the way, was about a year younger than Arthur.)
“Look – I’m 5-feet-9, I have a deep voice and I have a way with a line,” Arthur, referring to the similarities between her Maude and The Golden Girls characters, remarked to an interviewer. “What can I do about it? I can’t stay home waiting for something different. I think it’s a total waste of energy worrying about typecasting.”
The Golden Girls ended up winning a number of Emmys, including one for Arthur in 1988. She was also nominated for 4 Golden Globes in the best actress in a television comedy/musical series category. (Maude had earned her five Golden Globe nods.)
After hooking up with Leslie Nielsen in the series’ last episode, Arthur quit the show in 1992. The three other stars returned in The Golden Palace, but the chemistry was gone (even though Arthur guested in two episodes). The new show lasted only one season.
Off-screen, Arthur sounded just as liberal (and witty) as the characters she played. She was also a generous animal rights advocate and a devoted fundraiser for AIDS research.
In the video clip at the top of this post, Rock Hudson and Bea Arthur sing a ditty about mind-altering substances, “Everybody Today Is Turning On” in the 1979 CBS variety show The Beatrice Arthur Special. The song – music by Cy Coleman; lyrics and book by Michael Stewart – is from the Broadway musical I Love My Wife (1977-79), directed by Gene Saks.
More details on The Beatrice Arthur Special in Ken Mandelbaum’s article “Obscure Videos: ’70s Specials.”