Truly an original and unforgettable star of two groundbreaking sitcoms, Maude and The Golden Girls, has passed away. Bea Arthur died yesterday at the age of 86. She had been battling cancer.
Born Bernice Frankel of New York City in 1922, she and her family moved to Maryland when she was 11. By age 12, she had grown to her full height. She hated being called by her full first name so she adopted her mother’s nickname “Bea.” She was a shy girl but overcame it through making wisecracks to her classmates. She was elected the wittiest girl in school and, because of her height and deep voice, often played males in school plays.
She went to college to be a medical lab technician but hated working in a hospital so she later took acting classes back in the Big Apple. The actress supported herself singing in night clubs and pushing drinks. Around this time, she married Robert Alan Aurthur, a screenwriter, film producer and television director. The union didn’t last but she kept a modified version of his surname to complete her stage name, Beatrice Arthur.
On the New York stage, Arthur found success in a version of Threepenny Opera in 1955. She once reflected that it was a life-changing experience and a highlight of her career. On Broadway, the actress played “Yente the Matchmaker” in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof and won a Tony Award for playing “Vera Charles” in Mame, opposite Angela Lansbury. She reprised the latter role in the 1974 film version, starring alongside Lucille Ball. Both versions were directed by Gene Saks, her longtime husband. They adopted two sons together, Matthew and Daniel, and divorced in 1978 after 28 years of marriage.
More stage roles followed, as did small parts on television. It was at age 50 that Arthur’s became a household name. She was hired to play the outspoken and liberal cousin of Edith Bunker, Maude Finley, on the popular All in the Family sitcom. The antithesis of loud-mouthed bigot Archie Bunker, Maude was so popular that show creator Norman Lear designed a spin-off around her.
The Maude sitcom ran for seven seasons and frequently landed on the list of the top 10 shows. Arthur won an Emmy for the role in 1977. Like many Lear shows, Maude didn’t shy away from controversial subjects, including one pivotal episode which found the main character contemplating having an abortion. When the sitcom’s ratings declined in year seven, there were plans to change the show’s setting and bring Maude to Washington but Arthur felt it was time to call it quits.
She briefly returned to the small screen in 1983 in Amanda’s, based on the UK’s Fawlty Towers. It didn’t last. Then, in 1985, Arthur was lured back to television to play Dorothy Zbornak; a divorced substitute teacher who lives in Miami with two friends (played by Rue McClanahan and Betty White) and her Sicilian mother (Estelle Getty).
Like Maude before her, Dorothy has a caustic sense of humor. The role was written with her in mind but she wasn’t the first actress to read for the The Golden Girls. In 2005, Arthur recounted to EW, “I flipped when I read the script! After all of the crap I’d been sent, here was something so bright and adult and fabulously funny. I guess they assumed that I didn’t want to do it.”
Golden Girls was a big success for NBC and was a top-rated show for six seasons. Arthur won her second Emmy in 1988 for her work in the series. The ratings slipped in season seven, Arthur decided to call it quits, and the show ended. Her three costars continued on to The Golden Palace spin-off for CBS but it didn’t last. Fortunately, before it was cancelled, Arthur reunited with the ladies for a two-part episode.
She continued to make guest appearances on various shows like Futurama and Malcolm in the Middle but didn’t return to weekly series work. In 2002, she returned to Broadway in a one-woman show, Bea Arthur on Broadway. She and the show were nominated for a Tony Award but lost to Elaine Strich, who coincidentally had originally auditioned for Arthur’s role on Golden Girls.
The autobiographical show was co-created by her longtime friend, Billy Goldenberg. He told EW that Arthur was “never afraid to say anything that she believed in. The rest of us always took a moment before we said anything, maybe edited it. But she never did. And that was rather odd, because she was a very shy, private person.”
Last year, Arthur was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Science’s Hall of Fame. The Golden Girls was also honored at last year’s TV Land Awards ceremony. Arthur, White, and McClanahan attended and it was the last time that the ladies reunited. Getty, who had been ailing for several years, passed away soonafter.
And now, Arthur has left us as well. McClanahan, who starred with Arthur on both Golden Girls and Maude, said, “[Thirty-seven] years ago she showed me how to be very brave in playing comedy. I’ll miss that courage. And I’ll miss that voice.”
Susan Harris, who created Golden Girls and wrote the abortion episode of Maude, reflected to EW, “Bea could do anything. Bea was possibly the easiest person to write for. You never had to give Bea any direction. She always came in very well prepared, but she gave you so much more than what you wrote. Just her looks would get laughs. When I wrote the Golden Girls [pilot] script, in describing the character of Dorothy, I said ‘a Bea Arthur type,’ never imagining for a minute that Bea was available or would do it. We were fortunate enough to get her. That voice certainly was a signature. She was a commanding presence. But if she hadn’t had that talent, if she hadn’t had that timing, if she hadn’t had the depth that she had as an actor, her height and her voice would have been meaningless. She was a force. I really can’t imagine anyone taking her place. I don’t intend to write another show, but if I wrote [another] ‘Bea Arthur type,’ I think we’d be very hard pressed to find one.”
Lansbury told ET Online, “Bea Arthur and I first met when we did Mame together in 1965. She became and has remained ‘My Bosom Buddy’ ever since. I am deeply saddened by her passing, but also relieved that she is released from the pain. I spoke to Matt, her son, yesterday and I was aware that her time was imminent. She was a rare and unique performer and a dear, dear friend.”
Though Arthur was a true force of nature on stage, it’s fortunate for future generations that so much of her work was captured on video tape and can be seen forever more. Because of this, her indelible characters, perfect comic timing, brutal honesty, and razor wit will never be forgotten.