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Bea Arthur, star of 'Golden Girls' and 'Maude,' dies at 86

April 26, 2009|Claudia Luther

Beatrice Arthur, best known as the acerbic Maude Findlay on Norman Lear's sitcom "Maude" and as the strong-willed Dorothy Zbornak on the long-running "The Golden Girls," died Saturday. She was 86.

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.

In 1966, the tall and husky-voiced Arthur won a Tony for her performance as Vera Charles, the sharp-tongued sidekick to Angela Lansbury's Mame Dennis in the original production of "Mame" on Broadway, which 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 28, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Bea Arthur obituary: The obituary of actress Bea Arthur in Sunday's California section said that "Mame" -- for which Arthur won a 1966 Tony -- was named best musical that year. "Mame" was nominated; "Man of La Mancha" won.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 10, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Bea Arthur obituary: The obituary of actress Bea Arthur in the April 26 California section said that "Mame" -- for which Arthur won a 1966 Tony -- was named best musical that year. "Mame" was nominated; "Man of La Mancha" won.

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. 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. 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 on "The Golden Girls," the NBC hit that ran from 1985 to 1992, 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 had suffered a small stroke that freed her from the constraints of tact.

Much of what made the show work was the snappy mother-daughter dialogue, with Arthur as the "isle of sanity who could look at the other three characters from the audience's perspective," as producer Paul Witt once said.

The series also starred Betty White as the naive Rose and Rue McClanahan as the saucy Blanche. All four 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. She often described herself as a shy child, but her classmates remembered her as vivacious, self-assured and funny.

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 went to New York City, where she studied at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School with the influential German director Erwin Piscator.

She also joined the famed Actors Studio, where she met her future husband, Gene Saks, who later directed Broadway shows and movies, including several 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 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.

"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."

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