(Pictured above, center, Bea Arthur)
Tall, husky-voiced, hilariously forthright if not downright acid-tongued, Beatrice “Bea” Arthur commanded attention, whether she was on stage or the TV screen.
Born Bernice Frankel in New York City on May 13, 1922, Bea was raised in Cambridge, Maryland— the daughter of department store owners. She later trained for the stage at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research in New York City, gaining attention for her natural talent, stature, and a voice so deep it could be mistaken for that of a man’s. She went to work on Broadway where she quickly landed a succession of roles, and, in 1966, she won a Tony® Award for her performance as the barb-tongued Vera Charles in Mame.
Bea had little television or film experience when she met television writer and producer Norman Lear, who brought her to Hollywood in 1971 for a guest spot on All in the Family as Maude, Edith Bunker’s opinionated and progressively minded cousin. Maude’s cosmic-scaled clashes with Archie Bunker, the possessor of a more retrograde mindset, became the stuff of comedy legend; within a year, Bea had her own show, Maude, which aired on CBS from 1972-1978. For her work on the series, Bea received five Emmy® nominations and won for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1977.
It was in the Touchstone Television series The Golden Girls, which aired on NBC from 1985 to 1992, that Bea found her most fully realized and enduring character, utterly inhabiting the role of Dorothy Zbornak, daughter of the widowed Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty). Mother-daughter exchanges never sounded more authentic or hilarious, and what helped make the show tick so smoothly, as show producer Paul Witt once said, was the way Bea functioned as “the isle of sanity who could look at the other three characters from the audience’s perspective.”
“I’m thrilled to be part of this bright, funny comedy,” Bea said during the series’ run. “It’s fun to go to work every day with this marvelous group of performers.” All four of the show’s stars, Bea, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White, would go on to receive Emmys for their work on this landmark television series, with Bea earning hers in 1988.
After The Golden Girls, Bea continued to work, most notably in a one-woman show called Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends, which enjoyed strong runs on Broadway and around the world. She was also a strong advocate of animal rights and AIDS research.
She was married twice, to playwright Robert Alan Aurthur, from whom she derived her stage name, and to Broadway director Gene Saks.
Bea passed away on April 25, 2009, in Los Angeles on April 25, 2009. Three days later, the Broadway community paid tribute to this giant of screen and stage by dimming marquees in New York City’s Broadway theater district for one minute. Betty White, who played Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, said upon hearing of Bea’s passing, “I knew it would hurt, I just didn’t know it would hurt this much. She was such a big part of my life.”