Bea Arthur, "Maude" "Golden Girls" star
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.
Los Angeles Times
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LOS ANGELES — 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.
Ms. 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 said.
In 1966, the tall and husky-voiced actress won a Tony Award 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.
Time magazine said of her performance, she "delivers a line as if someone had put lye in her martinis."
She had little experience in either film or TV when Lear saw 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 loudmouthed cousin, Maude, who tangled with Edith's equally loudmouthed husband, Archie Bunker, from opposite sides of the political fence.
Within a year, Ms. 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), grandson Phillip (Brian Morrison), 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 Ms. Arthur five Emmy nominations and a statuette in 1977. But, despite the show's enormous success, Ms. 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 she left "Maude," she returned to TV briefly in 1983 for ABCs failed takeoff of the British series "Fawlty Towers," titled "Amanda's."
She returned to television in triumph in 1985 as Dorothy, the divorcée on "The Golden Girls," the NBC hit that ran from 1985-92, twice won Emmys for best comedy and continues to enjoy 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 Ms. 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 naive Rose and Rue McClanahan as the saucy Blanche. All won Emmys for their portrayals; Ms. Arthur's came in 1988.
Much quieter by nature than her famous characters, Ms. Arthur often said that what she and they had in common was: "All three of us are 5-foot-9 ½ in our stocking feet and we all have deep voices." And all, she said, tended to be "bubble-prickers."
In a 2008 interview with The Associated Press, Ms. Arthur said she was lucky to be discovered by TV after a long stage career, recalling with bemusement CBS executives asking about the new "girl."
"I was already 50 years old. I had done so much Off-Broadway, on Broadway, but they said, 'Who is that girl? Let's give her her own series.' "
She 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 studied at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York 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, particularly film versions of Neil Simon plays.
In 2002, "Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends," a one-woman show she developed with composer Billy Goldenberg, 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," she told her audiences in the show.
In addition to performing, Ms. Arthur supported animal rights and AIDS research. She had lived in Los Angeles for many years.
Before marrying Saks, Ms. Arthur was married briefly to playwright Robert Alan Aurthur, from whom she acquired part of her stage name. "Bernice" became "Beatrice" because she always hated her given name, and she simplified the spelling of his last name.
Ms. Arthur and Saks, who married in 1950 and divorced in the late 1970s, had two sons, Matthew and Daniel, who survive her, as do two grandchildren.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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