Saturday, April 25, 2009

DELICIOUS! REMEMBERS: 'Golden Girl' Bea Arthur - star of Television, Stage & Screen

Beatrice Arthur, the tall, deep-voiced actress whose razor-sharp delivery of comedy lines made her a TV star in the hit shows "Maude" and "The Golden Girls" and who won a Tony Award for the musical Mame, died Saturday. She was 86.
Arthur first appeared in the landmark comedy series "All in the Family" as Edith Bunker's loudly outspoken, liberal cousin, Maude Finley. She proved a perfect foil for blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), and their blistering exchanges were so entertaining that producer Norman Lear fashioned Arthur's own series "Maude".
The groundbreaking "Maude" scored with television viewers immediately on its CBS debut in September 1972, and Arthur won an Emmy Award for the role in 1977. The comedy flowed from Maude's efforts to cast off the traditional restraints that women faced, but the series often had a serious base. Her husband Walter (Bill Macy) became an alcoholic, and she underwent an abortion, which drew a torrent of viewer protests. Maude became a standard bearer for the growing feminist movement in America.
Arthur was born Bernice Frankel in New York City in 1922. When she was 11, her family moved to Cambridge, Md., where her father opened a clothing store. At 12 she had grown to full height, and she dreamed of being a petite blond movie star like June Allyson. There was one advantage of being tall and deep-voiced: She was chosen for the male roles in school plays.
After two years at a junior college in Virginia, she earned a degree as a medical lab technician, but she "loathed" doing lab work at a hospital. Acting held more appeal, and she enrolled in a drama course at the New School of Social Research in New York City. To support herself, she sang in a night spot that required her to push drinks on customers. Then, in 1964, Harold Prince cast her as Yente the Matchmaker in the original company of Fiddler on the Roof.
Arthur's biggest Broadway triumph came in 1966 as Vera Charles, Angela Lansbury's acerbic friend in the musical Mame, directed by her then-husband Gene Saks. Richard Watts of the New York Post called her performance "a portrait in acid of a savagely witty, cynical and serpent-tongued woman." She won the Tony as best supporting actress and repeated the role in the film version starring Lucille Ball as Mame.
"There was no one else like Bea," said "Mame" composer Jerry Herman. "She would make us laugh during `Mame' rehearsals with a look or with a word. She didn't need dialogue. I don't know if I can say that about any other person I ever worked with."
"Golden Girls" (1985-1992) was the other of Arthur's groundbreaking TV comedies, finding surprising success in a television market increasingly skewed toward a younger, product-buying audience. The series concerned three retirees — Dorothy (Arthur), Rose (Betty White) and Blanche (Rue McClanahan) — and Dorothy's wise and witty mother Sophia, (played masterfully by the late Estelle Getty), who lived together in a lovely Miami home. In contrast to the violent "Miami Vice," the comedy was nicknamed "Miami Nice." The interplay among the four women and their relations with men fueled the comedy, and the show amassed a big audience and 10 Emmys, including two as best comedy series and individual awards for each of the stars.
Between her two TV series, Arthur remained active in both films and theater. One of her best performances was the Mother of the Groom in the hilarious 1970 film Lovers And Other Strangers. Most recently, during 2001 and 2002 she toured the country in a one-woman show of songs and stories, "...And Then There's Bea."
Estelle Getty went on to that "Shady Pines" in the sky in July of last year - now her daughter Dorothy has gone on to join her. We will miss you Bea. Our world will somehow now make a little less sense.
Click this link to see a delightful clip of Bea and Rock Hudson singing "Everybody today is Turning On" from the broadway musical I Love My Wife.
Click here to watch Bea and Angela recreate their glorious Tony-winning roles from Mame.

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