Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bea Arthur Passes On

Beatrice Arthur, often known simply as "Bea Arthur," passed yesterday at the age of 86. The cause was cancer. She was probably best known for playing Maude on the sitcom of the same name and Dorothy on The Golden Girls.

Bea Arthur was born on May 13, 1922 Bernice Frankel in New York City. While still very young her family moved to Cambridge, Maryland. Even as a child she wanted to be an actress and singer. She all tended Linden Hall High School, a girls only school in Lititz, Pennsylvania. After high school she enrolled in Blackstone College in Blackstone, Virginia, where she studied to be medical technician. There she was active in plays. Eventually she moved to New York City where she studied drama at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research. Among her fellow students were Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, and her future husband Gene Saks.

Bea Arthur married writer Robert Alan Aurthur. While the marriage did not last, Arthur took her the last name of her stage name from him, although with a modified spelling. As to a first name of her stage name, she disliked the "Bernice" even as child. She soon insisted on being called simply "B," which she later expanded to Beatrice because she thought it would look good on a theatre marquee.

Arthur started her dramatic career at the Cherry Lane Theatre, currently the oldest running off Broadway theatre in New York City. She made her debut on television as a regular on the series Once Upon a Tune in 1951 and appeared in episodes of Studio One and Kraft Television Theatre that same year. She would appear on both shows a few more times in the Fifties. She was also a regular on Caesar's Hour, Washington Square and The Seven Lively Arts.

Beatrice Arthur not only appeared on television in the Fifties, but also frequented the stage as well. She made her Broadway debut as Lucy Brown in a revival of Threepenny Opera in 1954. During the Fifties she would go onto appear in Seventh Heaven, Nature's Way, and another revival of Threepenny Opera.

The Sixties would see Arthur primarily active on the stage. She originated the role of Yente in Fiddler on the Roof and Vera Charles in Mame, for which she won a Tony Award. On television she appeared only in The Sid Caesar Show. In 1971 her friend Norman Lear asked to make a guest appearance on All in the Family as Edith Bunker's liberal cousin Maude Findlay. The character proved so successful that Maude was spun off into her own series, Maude. Maude won an Emmy for Bea Arthur for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series was nominated for several others. The show ran for six seasons. It also generated a good deal of controversy, particularly over an episode in which Maude has an abortion.

In the Seventies Bea Arthur would also appear in the movies Lovers and Other Strangers and Mame (recreating her role as Vera Charles). On television she appeared in the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special. After Maude left the air Arthur returned to Broadway in The Floating Light Bulb in 1981. In movies she appeared in History of the World: Part I. On television she made guest appearances on Soap and a.k.a. Pablo. In 1983 she was the lead on the short lived series Amanda's, one of the attempts to adapt the Britcom Fawlty Towers as an American sitcom.

It was in 1985 that Beatrice Arthur was cast as Dorothy Petrillo Zbornak in the series The Golden Girls, appearing the show alongside fellow Maude co-star Rue McClanahan, television legend Betty White, and comic actress Estelle Getty. The show proved to be incredibly successful, more successful than Maude. The show ran seven seasons, ending only because Arthur decided it was time for her to do other things. It has remained in reruns ever since.

Arthur would return to the stage, even creating her own solo show Bea Arthur on Broadway. She appeared in the movies For Better or Worse and Enemies of Laughter. Arthur guest starred on the shows Dave's World, Malcolm in the Middle, and Futurama.

As a comic actress Beatrice Arthur was a genius. Her delivery was impeccable. No one could deliver a put down(more often than not done deadpan), nearly as well as Arthur could. She was also definitely not afraid to take roles that at the time were revolutionary. In Maude she played a strong willed, acerbic, middle aged woman with a mind of her own. The series made a big leap in what women could play on television. The Golden Girls dealt with characters older than the usual television demographic, characters who still had active love lives. Bea Arthur once said of Maude, "I think we made television a little more adult." The same could be said of The Golden Girls. The two shows certainly expanded what television could be, and the talent of Bea Arthur was a large part of that success.


J. Marquis said...

I felt like her Maude character was really important. A powerful, intelligent, middle-aged woman who was always ready to express her opinion.

Toby O'B said...

I thought Bea Arthur was a force of nature as Maude. When she first appeared on 'All In The Family', to me it was as if she had come from out of nowhere, fully realized as the character.

Strangely though, I saw "The Floating Light Bulb", and just thought of it the other day - in that I couldn't remember who was in it, save for the kid. I guess it just didn't have an impact on me.

One over-looked gem - her guest appearance on 'Malcolm In The Middle'. It was pure Bea Arthur, even if a bit subdued....