Obituary: Beatrice Arthur / Tony actress had 2 TV sitcom hits
Share with others:
Beatrice Arthur, best known as the acerbic Maude Findlay on Norman Lear's television sitcom "Maude" and as the strong-willed Dorothy Zbornak on the long-running "The Golden Girls," died yesterday. She was 86.
Ms. Arthur, a stage-trained actress who was a success on Broadway long before TV audiences got to know her, died of cancer at her Los Angeles home, family spokesman Dan Watt told The Associated Press.
In 1966, the tall and husky-voiced Ms. Arthur won a Tony 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.
But Ms. Arthur had little experience in either film or TV when Mr. Lear spotted her singing a song called "Garbage" in an off-Broadway show, "The Shoestring Revue." In 1971, Mr. Lear brought her to Hollywood for a guest role on CBS's "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.
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." (Ms. 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 Ms. Arthur did not enjoy being the public face of feminism, a role that she said was thrust upon her.
After Ms. Arthur left "Maude" in 1978, 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, the divorcee on "The Golden Girls," the NBC hit that ran from 1985-92, 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 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.
Ms. Arthur often said that what she and her co-stars had in common was: "All three of us are 5-foot-91/2 in our stocking feet and we all have deep voices." And all, she said, tended to be "bubble-prickers."
Ms. 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.
Making the most of her stature and a voice so deep that on the telephone she was often mistaken for a man, 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 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.
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.
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"
First Published April 26, 2009 1:29 am