May 12, 1922- Beatrice Arthur:
”I’m an actress who sings a bit.”
The Golden Girls made its debut in 1985, yet the series still seems fresh in reruns thanks to great writing, crisp directing and comic talents and four funny females. It was created by Susan Harris for the great Lee Grant to play the character Dorothy Zbornak. Lee had starred in Harris’s short-lived 1978 sitcom Fay. However, Grant wasn’t keen on playing a grandmother, so the role was eventually offered to Bea Arthur. Though not immediately.
Harris originally had written the part of Dorothy with Arthur in mind, having worked with her on several episodes of the groundbreaking Maude (1972-78) for Norman Lear. Then-NBC president Brandon Tartikoff said he was not crazy about the casting, stating that Arthur had a low ”Q” score (the rating system of a performer’s audience appeal). She was recognizable, but not ”loveable”, mostly because of the character Maude’s liberalism. Elaine Stritch auditioned, but the producers were not happy with her improvising her dialogue and dropping an occasional ”fuck” during her audition.
Her Maude co-star Rue McClanahan gave the reluctant Arthur a nudge to take the The Golden Girls gig.
Estelle Getty, McClanahan, and Betty White had such incredible onscreen chemistry, it’s hard to believe they were not pals in real life. But in the years after the show ended, candid interviews revealed an underlying tension between White and Arthur. However, both were close to McClanahan off camera. Arthur and White were consummate professionals while filming but found no time for each other on breaks. Yet White has always expressed nothing but admiration for Arthur, and only after Arthur’s death, did she reveal their personality clash. White’s positive personality could really bug the acerbic Arthur.
Arthur’s son Matthew Sacks stated:
“My mom unknowingly carried the attitude that it was fun to have somebody to be angry at. White became her nemesis, the person she could roll her eyes about.”
It’s hard to imagine that Arthur didn’t take pleasure whenever Dorothy’s lines included snapping: “Oh, shut up, Rose!” at White’s character.
“She was not that fond of me. She found me a pain in the neck sometimes. If I was happy, she’d be furious!”
Arthur was a complicated eccentric person with many tics and quirks. She hated wearing shoes so much that it was in her contract that she could walk around set barefoot if she promised not to sue the producers if she was injured as a result. She hated birds and chewing gum. If cast or crew were chewing gum on the set, she would try to have them fired.
White like to chat with the live audience between takes, while Arthur preferred to stay in character, waiting in place. Saks:
“Sometimes Betty would go out and smile and chat with the audience and literally go and make friends with the audience. Which is a nice thing; a lot of them have come from all over the country and were fans. I think my mom didn’t dig that. It was more about being focused or conserving your energy. It was just not the right time to talk to fans between takes. Betty was able to do it and it didn’t seem to affect her. But it rubbed my mom the wrong way. My mom was the real deal. I think she felt she was more of an actor than Betty. Mom came from Broadway. Betty starred on a game show at one point.”
Arthur’s resentment grew when the show’s writers began a habit of “Dorothy bashing.” Insulting commentary about Rose’s intelligence or Blanche’s promiscuity was no big thing to White or McClanahan because they were not like their characters. But the things that were said about Dorothy were that she was big and ugly. And that was tough for Arthur.
People who loved the show (which was most people), even some of the loyal LGBTQ fans that gathered at their local bars for Golden Girl nights, may have also known Arthur as Maude, but they may not have known that two decades earlier she had won a Tony Award for her Broadway performance in the musical Mame (1966) opposite Angela Lansbury, or that she won an Emmy Award, after 11 nominations, for Maude (1972-78). Maude was a spin-off of the Number One show in the USA, All In The Family, in which, in two episodes (1971-72), Arthur established herself as a favorite.
Arthur played Archie Bunker’s liberal cousin Maude Findlay and she developed the character, and the feminist politics, in the follow-up series. The series was controversial, and it addressed serious topics that no ther sitcom would touch including the Vietnam War, the Nixon Administration, divorce, menopause, drug use, alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, mental illness, Women’s Liberation, Gay Rights, abortion, and spousal abuse. Maude even ran for Congress!
Arthur was born Bernice Frankel in Brooklyn. When she was 11-years-old, the family moved to Cambridge, Maryland where her father ran a clothing store. At 12 -years-old, she was already 5ft 9in, and her dream of being blonde and 5ft 2in was a bust.
She graduated from Blackstone College as a laboratory technician, but then hated the work. During WW II, she worked as a truck driver in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, receiving an Honorable Discharge in 1944 with the rank of Staff Sergeant. On the G.I. Bill, she enrolled at the New School Of Social Research, in Manhattan, with a major in Theatre. She began singing in nightclubs, and having disliked the name Bernice, she became Beatrice. A fleeting marriage provided the Arthur.
Her height had seemed a disadvantage, but before long, Arthur embraced the potential in being a character actor. She worked in summer stock, and in the early days of 1950s television, she found work in series such as Kraft Television Theatre and Studio One. She had also remarried, to the actor and director Gene Saks.
In 1955, Arthur played Lucy Brown opposite Lotte Lenya in a seminal Off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht‘s The Threepenny Opera. Arthur later wrote that Lenya taught her economy in acting. She continued to do television including regular appearances on the Sid Caesar Show, where, she said the cast taught her how to be outrageous.
In 1964, she was cast Yente, the Matchmaker, in the original production of Fiddler On The Roof, starring Zero Mostel, to rave reviews. In 1966, she played Vera Charles in Mame, which was directed by Saks, repeating the role in the unfortunate film version in 1974. The casting of Lucille Ball as Mame is still being dissected at gay brunches in the 21st century.
Arthur said it was Mame, that led to All In The Family, and it was Vera Charles who sketched out the character reprised in her first two television series. She ended Maude, she said, because she wanted to go out on a high. She showed up on the Mary Tyler Moore Hour (1979) and Soap (1980), and then starred in an ill-fated American version of the British hit of Fawlty Towers, called Amanda’s (1983). In 1985 came The Golden Girls, her best known and most successful work.
Along the way, she gathered even more LGBTQ fans for her camp work in the insane Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), in which she had a song and dance number in the Mos Eisley Cantina, and for The Beatrice Arthur Special (1980), a musical revue with Rock Hudson, Melba Moore, and Wayland Flowers and Madame. Could it get much gayer?
My first dose of Bea Arthur’s magic was her portrayal of overbearing mother Bea Vecchio in the sublime comedy Lovers And Other Strangers (1970) based on the play by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna. What a cast: Gig Young, Cloris Leachman, Anne Jackson, Bonnie Bedelia, Harry Guardino, Anne Meara, and, in her film debut, Diane Keaton. It was nominated for three Academy Awards. It is worth seeking out, in no small way, for Arthur’s performance.
Arthur had limited success in films, and her work television is how she is best remembered. The television work never did not dry up. In 2000 she appeared in Malcolm In The Middle, and in 2005 she played Larry David‘s mother in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
In 2002, she returned to Broadway in the imaginatively titled Bea Arthur On Broadway: Just Between Friends, a collection of stories and songs based on her life and career.
The single time I saw Arthur live was in October 1998, in a concert version of the Cole Porter musical Jubilee! at Carnegie Hall, a benefit for Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The cast included Tyne Daly, Sandy Duncan, Michael Jeter, Alice Ripley, Stephen Spinella and Bob Paris. What a night!
Arthur was an Animal Rights activist and supporter of People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals (PETA), joining after a Golden Girls anti-fur episode in 1987. At PETA headquarters in Virginia, there is a dog park named the Bea Arthur Dog Park in her honor.
She was a liberal Democrat:
“I’ve been a Democrat my whole life. That’s what makes Maude and Dorothy so believable, we have the same viewpoints on how our country should be handled.”
Arthur was taken by cancer in 2009, two and a half weeks short of her 87th birthday. Tribute was paid to Arthur by dimming the marquees of Broadway theatres the next evening.
Arthur bequeathed $300,000 to the Ali Forney Center, a NYC organization that provides housing for homeless LGBTQ young people. The Bea Arthur Residence, which opened last year, is a residence in Manhattan for homeless LGBTQ youth operated by the Ali Forney Center.