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In Memoriam: Bea Arthur

May 3, 2009



Beatrice "Bea" Arthur (May 13, 1922 April 25, 2009) was an American actress, comedian, and singer. In a career spanning seven decades, Arthur achieved success as the title character Maude Findlay on the 1970s sitcom Maude, and as Dorothy Zbornak on the 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls; she won Emmys for both roles. Also a stage actress, she won the Tony Award for her performance as Vera Charles in the original cast of Mame.

Arthur was born Bernice Frankel to Philip and Rebecca Frankel in New York City on May 13, 1922.[2] Her family soon moved to Cambridge, Maryland where her parents operated a women's clothing shop. She attended Linden Hall High School, an all girls school in Lititz, Pennsylvania, before enrolling in the now-defunct Blackstone College in Blackstone, Virginia where she was active in drama productions.

From 1947 Beatrice Arthur studied at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York with German director Erwin Piscator. Arthur began her acting career as a member of an off Broadway theater group at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City in the late 1940s. On stage, her roles included Lucy Brown in the 1954 Off-Broadway premiere of Marc Blitzstein's English-language adaptation of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, Yente the Matchmaker in the 1964 premiere of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, and a 1966 Tony Award-winning portrayal of Vera Charles to Angela Lansbury's Mame. She reprised the role in the 1974 film version opposite Lucille Ball. In 1981, she appeared in Woody Allen's The Floating Lightbulb.[

Not long after the strip began, however, Hammett and Raymond left, respectively, in February and November of 1935. The strip was far from doomed, however, and thus began a string of other writers and artists who would give their two cents to Agent X-9. Writers over the next several years included Leslie Charteris and Max Trell, while artists included Charles Flanders, Nicholas Afonsky, Austin Briggs and Mel Graff...who eventually took over as a writer as well.

It was Graff who gave the swift secret agent a name - Phil Corrigan - and a bit of a makeover in the personality department. No longer the loner who treated people with cool, almost icy, indifference, Phil was a romancer who eventually married and had a child before Graff left the strip in 1960.

Then, the reins were handed over to Bob Lubbers (who signed his work on Secret Agent X-9 "Bob Lewis"), who drew until 1967.

Then, along came the team of artist Al Williamson and writer Archie Goodwin. They renamed the strip Secret Agent Corrigan, and injected it with a distinctly James Bond-esque feel, complete with far-off lands, beautiful women and plenty of action (the well-known team also had worked on the Star Wars strip together).

In 1980, Goodwin and Williamson decided to bid the strip farewell, and it was taken over by EC Comics veteran George Evans, who continued the series until his retirement in 1996, when the strip ended.

In 1971, Arthur was invited by Norman Lear to guest-star on his sit-com All in the Family, as Maude Findlay, the cousin of Edith Bunker. An outspoken liberal feminist, she was the antithesis to the bigoted, conservative Archie Bunker, who decried Maude as a "New Deal fanatic". The then-50 Arthur's tart turn appealed to viewers and to executives at CBS, who, she would later recall, asked "'Who is that girl? Let's give her her own series.'"[4]

That show, previewed in a second episode of All in the Family, would be simply titled Maude. The show, debuting in 1972, would find her living in the affluent community of Tuckahoe, Westchester County, New York, with her husband Walter (Bill Macy) and divorced daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau). Her performance in the role garnered Arthur several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, including her Emmy win in 1977 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.

It would also earn a place for her in the history of the women's liberation movement.[5] The groundbreaking series didn't shirk from addressing serious sociopolitical topics of the era that were fairly taboo for a sit-com, from the Vietnam War, the Nixon Administration and Maude's bid for a Congressional seat to divorce, menopause, drug use, alcoholism, nervous breakdown and spousal abuse. A prime example, "Maude's Dilemma", was a two-part episode in which Maude's character grapples with a late-life pregnancy, ultimately deciding to have an abortion. The episode aired two months before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the procedure in the Roe v. Wade decision.[6] Though abortion was legal in New York State, it was illegal in many regions of the country and so controversial that dozens of affiliates refused to broadcast the episode. A reported 65 million viewers watched the two episodes either in their first run that November or the following summer as a re-run.[7] By 1978, however, Arthur decided to move on from the series.

That year, she costarred in The Star Wars Holiday Special, in which she had a song and dance routine in the Mos Eisley Cantina. She hosted The Beatrice Arthur Special on CBS on January 19, 1980, which paired the star in a musical comedy revue with Rock Hudson, Melba Moore and Wayland Flowers and Madame.[8]

After appearing in the short-lived 1983 sitcom Amanda's (an adaptation of the British series Fawlty Towers), Arthur was cast in the sitcom The Golden Girls in 1985, in which she played Dorothy Zbornak, a divorced substitute teacher living in a Miami house owned by Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan). Her other roommates included widow Rose Nylund (Betty White) and Dorothy's Sicilian mother, Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty). Getty was actually a year younger than Arthur in real life, and was heavily made up to look significantly older. The series remained a top ten ratings fixture for six seasons. Her performance led to several Emmy nominations over the course of the series and an Emmy win in 1988. Arthur decided to leave the show after seven years and in 1992, the show was moved from NBC to CBS and retooled as The Golden Palace in which the other three actresses reprised their roles. Arthur made a guest appearance in a two-part episode.

After Arthur left The Golden Girls, she made several guest appearances on television shows and organized and toured in her one-woman show, alternately titled An Evening with Bea Arthur and And Then There's Bea. She made a guest appearance on the American cartoon Futurama, in the Emmy-nominated episode "Amazon Women in the Mood", as the voice of the Femputer who ruled the giant Amazonian women. She also appeared in an episode of Malcolm in the Middle as Mrs. White, Dewey's babysitter, in a first-season episode. She was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her performance. She also appeared as Larry David's mother on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

In 2002, she returned to Broadway starring in Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends, a collection of stories and songs (with musician Billy Goldenberg) based on her life and career. The show was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event. The previous year had been the category's first, and there had been only one nominee. That year, Arthur was up against solo performances by soprano Barbara Cook, comedian John Leguizamo, and Arthur's fellow student in Piscator's program at The New School, actress Elaine Stritch, who won for Elaine Stritch: At Liberty.

In addition to appearing in a number of programs looking back at her own work, Arthur performed in stage and television tributes for Jerry Herman, Bob Hope and Ellen Degeneres. In 2005, she participated in the Comedy Central roast of Pamela Anderson.

Arthur was married twice, first to Robert Alan Aurthur, a screenwriter, television, and film producer and director, whose surname she took and kept (though with a modified spelling), and second to director Gene Saks from 1950 to 1978 with whom she adopted two sons, Matthew (born in 1961), an actor, and Daniel (born in 1964), a set designer.

She primarily lived in the Greater Los Angeles Area and had sublet her apartment on Central Park West in New York City and her country home in Bedford, New York.

Arthur was a committed animal rights activist and frequently supported People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals campaigns. Arthur joined PETA in 1987 after a Golden Girls anti-fur episode.[10] Arthur wrote letters, made personal appearances and placed ads against the use of furs, foie gras, and farm animal cruelty by KFC suppliers. She appeared on Judge Judy as a witness for an animal rights activist, and, along with Pamela Anderson insisted on a donation to PETA in exchange for appearing on Comedy Central. [11]

Arthur died at her home in the Greater Los Angeles Area in the early morning hours of April 25, 2009, aged 86. She had been ill from cancer.[9][12][13]

Both of Arthur's surviving Golden Girls co-stars commented on Bea's death. Rue McClanahan said, "I suppose perhaps the thing she did the best and the most of was make people laugh". [14] Betty White said, "I knew it would hurt. I just didn't know it would hurt this much". [15]

On April 28, 2009, the marquees of New York City's Broadway theater district were dimmed in her memory for one minute at 8:00 P.M.[16][17]

Longtime friend and actress Adrienne Barbeau, who co-starred on Maude, said of Bea's death, "I loved Bea dearly and her passing brings a great sadness. We've lost a unique, incredible talent. No one could deliver a line or hold a take like Bea, and no one was more generous or giving to her fellow performers. She was truly one of a kind and her friendship was a cherished blessing for me."




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