Bea Arthur, star of 'Golden Girls' and 'Maude,' dies at 86
The Broadway actress and TV star died of cancer in Los Angeles.
Arthur, a stage-trained actress who was a success on Broadway long before television audiences got to know her, died of cancer at her Los Angeles home, family spokesman Dan Watt told the Associated Press.
In 1966, the tall and husky-voiced Arthur won a Tony for her performance as Angela Lansbury's sharp-tongued sidekick, Vera Charles, in the original production of "Mame" on Broadway, which also was named best musical that year.
But Arthur had little experience in either film or TV when Lear spotted her singing a song called "Garbage" in an off-Broadway show, "The Shoestring Revue." In 1971, Lear brought her to Hollywood for a guest role on CBS' "All in the Family." She played Edith Bunker's loud-mouthed cousin, Maude, who tangled with Edith's equally loud-mouthed husband, Archie Bunker, from opposite sides of the political fence.
Within a year, Arthur had her own show, "Maude," which ran for six years on CBS.
In the series, Maude is living in Tuckahoe, N.Y., with her fourth husband Walter Findlay (Bill Macy), daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), a grandson and a black maid named Florida (Esther Rolle), whose sassy repartee with her boss was one of the best parts of "Maude." (Rolle's character spun off into another series, "Good Times.")
"Maude" came at the onset of the feminist movement and addressed serious issues, including infidelity, death, depression and abortion, but there were always laughs. This exchange is typical:
Walter: Maude, did you wreck the car again?
Maude: Did you hear that, everybody? DID YOU HEAR THAT? Not "Maude, are you sick?" Or "Maude, are you unhappy?" Or even, "Maude, are you pregnant?" No, "Maude, did you wreck the car again?"
Walter: You're right, darling. You're absolutely right. I'm sorry. So tell me, are you sick?
Walter: Are you unhappy?
Walter: Are you pregnant?
Maude's most famous line, delivered often and with withering drollery, was: "God will get you for that, Walter."
Playing Maude earned Arthur five Emmy nominations and a statuette in 1977. But, despite the show's enormous success, Arthur did not enjoy being the public face of feminism, a role she said was thrust upon her.
"It put a lot of unnecessary pressure on me," she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001.
After Arthur left "Maude," she returned to TV briefly in 1983 for ABC's failed takeoff of the British series "Fawlty Towers," titled "Amanda's." She returned to television in triumph in 1985 as Dorothy, the divorcee on "The Golden Girls," the NBC hit that ran from 1985-92, twice won Emmys for best comedy and enjoyed a long afterlife in syndication.
"The Golden Girls" followed the lives of three older women sharing a household in Miami with Dorothy's widowed mother, Sophia ( Estelle Getty), who has suffered a small stroke that frees her from the constraints of tactfulness.
Much of what made the show work was the snappy mother-daughter dialogue, with Arthur as what executive producer Paul Witt called the "isle of sanity who could look at the other three characters from the audience's perspective."
The series also co-starred Betty White as the naïve Rose and Rue McClanahan as the saucy Blanche. All won Emmys for their portrayals; Arthur's came in 1988.
Much quieter by nature than her famous characters, Arthur often said that what she and they had in common was: "All three of us are 5-foot-9 1/2 in our stocking feet and we all have deep voices." And all, she said, tended to be "bubble-prickers."
Arthur was born Bernice Frankel on May 13, 1922, in New York City, the daughter of department store owners, and was raised in Cambridge, Md., a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that she once said was "barren creatively."
She often described herself as a shy child, but her classmates remembered her as vivacious, self-assured and funny. Early on, she gave up the idea of being a medical technician in favor of acting.
Though she pined to be a June Allyson type -- small and blond and cute -- she made the most of her stature and a voice so deep that on the telephone she was often mistaken for a man.
She studied at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York City with the influential German director Erwin Piscator.
"He took one look at me and, apparently, I had something that German heroines had: I was a tall girl with a deep voice and enormous breasts," Arthur recounted in "Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends," a one-woman show she developed with composer Billy Goldenberg in the early 2000s. "So he cast me in all these classical roles, that I was certainly not capable of playing, such as Lysistrata, Gertrude and Lady Macbeth. All I did was declaim and stand there with my breasts."
She also joined the famed Actors Studio in New York City, where she met her future husband, Gene Saks, who later directed Broadway shows and movies, particularly film versions of Neil Simon plays.
In 1954, she got the role of Lucy Brown in the U.S. premiere of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Threepenny Opera," which opened off-Broadway starring Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya. Arthur adored Lenya and often referred to the experience as the highlight of her life, the time that she realized "I was good, damn good."
Around that same time, working in television on "Caesar's Hour" with Sid Caesar on NBC, she said she learned to be "outrageous" by doing "under fives" -- under five lines -- in sketches. During the 1950s, she appeared many times in various roles on Kraft Television Theatre.
Several years later, she created the role of Yente the matchmaker in the original 1964 Broadway production of "Fiddler on the Roof," directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.
Next she was part of the original 1966 production of "Mame" and became a lifelong friend of Lansbury's.
"The two of us together were dynamite, you know?" Lansbury said on CBS' "Sunday Morning" in 2002. " I mean, we really managed to just take off like birds."
Although she had wanted the part of Mame, Arthur was talked into taking the gal-pal role by husband Saks, who was directing the musical. But she didn't accept being second banana quietly, using her humor to make her point.
According to "Balancing Act," Martin Gottfried's 1999 biography of Lansbury, Arthur told people that the original name of the show was "Vera" and that the only reason it was changed was because composer Jerry Herman couldn't find rhymes for that name. Then she would dramatically pause, Gottfried said, and say, "Steve Sondheim could have."
"She was perfect for Vera," Gottfried concluded.
Indeed, when "Mame" opened on May 24, 1966, the New York Post's Richard Watts wrote that Arthur's Vera was "a portrait in acid of a savagely witty, cynical and serpent-tongued woman who is at once a terror, a scourge, the relentless voice of truth and a pleasure to have around."
And Time magazine said Arthur "delivers a line as if someone had put lye in her martinis."
When "Mame" came to the screen, Lucille Ball, who replaced Lansbury as the lead character, insisted on having Arthur as Vera, even though Arthur was upset that Lansbury had not gotten the role.
"She was the greatest Vera Charles in the world," Ball told the Hollywood Reporter of Arthur. "We wrapped the whole production around [her]."
The film, also directed by Saks and riddled with production problems, was a critical flop.
Arthur did only few movies, among them "That Kind of Woman" (1959) and "Lovers and Other Strangers" (1970).
In 2002, "Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends" appeared on Broadway for two months. The show also toured the U.S., Canada, Australia and elsewhere.
"I simply wanted to see if I had the guts to just come out and be myself, which is something I never felt very comfortable doing," Arthur told her audiences in the show.
In addition to performing, Arthur supported animal rights and AIDS research. She had lived in Los Angeles for many years.
Before marrying Saks, Arthur was married briefly to playwright Robert Alan Arthur, from whom she acquired part of her stage name. "Bernice" became "Beatrice" because she always hated her given name.
Arthur and Saks, who married in 1950 and divorced in 1979, had two sons, Matthew and Daniel, who survive her, as do two grandchildren.
Claudia Luther is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.