May 13, 1922 – April 25, 2009
by Mark Langlois
Legendary comic actress Bea Arthur told it like it was – on stage and off. Her ‘pull no punches’ approach can be summed up from her scene in the film: History of the World: Part I. As a clerk in ancient Rome’s unemployment office, Bea asks for Mel Brooks’ occupation. He replies, “I’m a stand-up philosopher” and Bea barks back, “Oh, a BULLSHIT ARTIST!”
Born Bernice Frankel in New York City on May 13, 1922, she and her family soon moved to Cambridge, Maryland where her parents owned a ladies clothing shop.
Bea became a medical technologist before World War II. Bea stated that growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, she used to “date guys from the University of Maryland Medical School.” After one “loathsome” season interning at the local hospital she decided to switch careers and head for New York to study drama at the New School for Social Research. Bea joked, ”I always wanted to be — not an actress — but I always wanted to be a very tiny blonde starlet like June Allyson.” The 5 foot 9 1/2 inch tall Bea Arthur’s acting career did take off – first on Broadway (she originated the role of Yenta the matchmaker in 1964’s Fiddler on the Roof) and later on television.
Bea did a stint as a truck driver in the Marines. TRUE.
Norman Lear’s sitcom Maude (1972 – 1978) about a Tuckahoe NY housewife with liberal politics, a confrontational manner and acid tongue, was a big hit on CBS.
Bea (along with her Broadway-trained supporting cast) viewed the sitcom as a new one-act play taped weekly. As Maude Findlay, Bea did a hysterical slow burn, going from imposing matron to histrionic drama queen which viewers loved. She won an Emmy for the role. The show was a spin-off from Lear’s All in the Family where Bea had first appeared as Edith Bunker’s visiting cousin Maude who battled with bigoted Archie Bunker. Maude’s popular maid Florida Evans (played by Esther Rolle) would be spun-off as well with the series Good Times. A two-part episode in November 1972 called “Maude’s Dilemma” brought controversy and HUGE ratings because it dealt with the 47-year-old Maude discovering she was pregnant and opting for an abortion. The show was taped at CBS Television City (1972-75) and then (1975-78) at Norman Lear’s company headquarters at Metromedia Square on Sunset Blvd and Van Ness Ave – now the site of a high school.
Trivia: Maude’s familiar retort/catchphrase was “God’ll get you for that.”
Bea Arthur was married twice, first to Robert Alan Aurthur, a screenwriter/producer/director, whose surname she adopted for the stage with a modified spelling, and second to director Gene Saks from 1950 to 1979 with whom she adopted two sons, Matthew (born 1961) and Daniel (born 1964). Husband Gene Saks directed Bea as Vera Charles to Lucille Ball‘s Mame (or in my house, MAIM) in the 1974 film flop musical. Bea was reprising her 1966 Tony-winning role as Auntie Mame’s boozy bosom buddy.
If you want to see George Lucas’s (or anyone else in life) head explode, ask him about 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special. Bea Arthur appeared in the TV variety special that aired on November 17, 1978, playing an intergalactic barmaid. She told fans years later that she “was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang ‘Goodnight, But Not Goodbye.’
It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing. I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.” Heh. That’s what she said.
In 1983, Television audiences saw Bea Arthur back on the small screen as tart-tongued hotel owner Amanda Cartwright in the short-lived sitcom, Amanda’s By The Sea. The show was another failed (thank God) attempt at bringing Fawlty Towers to U.S. airwaves. Luckily the show didn’t last, because Bea got cast in another huge hit with The Golden Girls (1985 -1992) for which she’d win another Emmy. As Dorothy Zbornak, she gave her trademark glowering stares to roommates Blanche and Rose, and got the brunt of mom Sophia’s insults (“Dorothy does bear a striking resemblance to Barnaby Jones.”). It was comedy gold. The gays especially ate it up, and listened intently for the zingers at The Castro’s Midnight Sun video bar when it aired on Saturday nights throughout the 80s. Bea knew about her gay fan base and years later proudly told the press, “I’ve always been active and outspoken in support of gay causes like partnership rights, AIDS relief, anti-discrimination. You know, they used to have parties in gay bars the night The Golden Girls was on.”
Bea’s co-star in both hit sitcoms Rue McClanahan described Bea as “very quiet and laid back.” Every third or fourth show of The Golden Girls, Rue said that Bea would squeeze her hand and say, “God, I’m glad you’re here.” The respect and affection was mutual. She reunited with her The Golden Girls co-stars for a 2004 panel discussion at Museum of TV & Radio in Beverly Hills, and again when they received a 2008 pop-culture TV Land Award.
“Rue… Rue is a sweetheart. But Betty White? What a cunt.”
That quote above? She said it – several times over several years. She explained that it had something to do with using dogs on an episode of The Golden Girls, and she and Betty clashed. Must have been a helluva clash, they were both active animal rights supporters. Go figure. They obviously made up, because there are scads of quotes from Betty flying around about Bea’s death. Interesting fact – Bob Barker and Betty are going at it now – over an elephant.
Rue mentions the relationship in an interview with TV Guide:
Last year, The Golden Girls creator Susan Harris saluted Betty White at an event celebrating Betty’s sixty years in show business and the two women openly discussed Bea’s intense dislike for Betty. What was that all about?
They approached life very differently. Bea came from a New York stage point of view. She always had what we call the fourth wall. And Betty came from a television point of view. She would flirt with the audience, and pull her skirt up and say, “Hi sailor”, but Bea never acknowledged the audience. I always thought that was maybe part of it. But Bea never confided in me why she felt the way she did about Betty. It could be something Bea never confided in me. Betty always asked me,“Why?” And Iï’d always say, “You know how Bea is, Betty. Bea gets a bee in her bonnet, and just doesn’t like certain things…and I don’t know why.” Bea, for instance, didn’t like people who wore their baseball caps backwards. That really got to her. We were interviewing directors one time and if someone came in with a baseball cap worn backwards, he didn’t stand a chance.
I was sent the above photograph when I wrote Bea a fan letter in the early 80’s. I was lucky enough to spend some time with her in the late 90’s, and she amazed me with her (bowing with respect) crass mouth and her capacity for booze. She murdered 3/4 of a bottle of Absolut Citron, in about 45 minutes. How do I know? I kept tit.
Even pasted a tabloid picture of Bea from that night. Barefoot on the streets of London – Dahlicious. She was about ready to kick me in the crotch when I mentioned a tabloid article abouther consulting a psychic to speak to her dead friend Charles Pierce.
“No! Don’t be ridiculous!”, she said. But meant so much more.
From 2000 through 2006, Bea toured North America, South Africa, Australia and the UK with her one-woman show “An Evening With Bea Arthur” which opened at Broadway’s Booth Theater as “Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends” for a limited engagement in 2002. She was nominated for a Tony Award – but lost that season to Elaine Stritch’s solo show. Among Bea’s tour dates were special engagements for her adoring gay fans during Sydney’s Gay Games (2002) and Provincetown’s Carnivale week (2004).
Bea told the press: “For me the fun was out on stage and feeling that the audience all knew me. I felt like Britney Spears. I think I am sort of like a taller Judy Garland, with a much deeper voice, in terms of my following.” The show was recorded live for a CD.
The show, which Bea created with composer/accompanist Billy Goldenberg, included some of Bea’s favorite songs, showbiz anecdotes, dirty jokes and her favorite recipe for leg of lamb. Bea incorporated performing barefoot into the show after she “ate it” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis when she accidentally stepped off the stage and fell into the orchestra pit. She was put back on stage, still in shock, and got a huge round of applause. Luckily, she only suffered a sprained foot.
Bea addressed her fondness for alcohol in a Toronto Star interview, saying “I believe that you’re here on Earth for a short time, and while you’re here, you shouldn’t forget it. I always remember that line from Mame: ‘Life’s a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death.’ Do I look like I’m hungry? Or thirsty?”
Bea Arthur was reportedly a gourmet cook, an avid gardener, and incessant reader. She spent her final years between a residence in Manhattan and “way out in the suburbs” at her Brentwood homebehind these gates along with her two Doberman pinschers. Her own TV viewing was limited to watching old movies, political and news programs, The Daily Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm and said she was “a sucker for Judge Judy” ( Bea once appeared as a witness for PETA against an abusive animal trainer on one of the first Judge Judy shows).
On December 9, 2008, Bea Arthur was inducted into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame at their annual celebratory dinner.
Her health declined steadily, and she became wheelchair bound. She had lung cancer, from a lifetime of smoking. “I don’t want people to see me this way.” were reportedly her last words.
Bea Arthur, age 86, died from cancer in the early hours of Saturday, April 25, 2009. Her rep told the press that she died peacefully in her LA home surrounded by her two sons. Bea was cremated and no funeral service is planned.
Betty White released the statement, “I knew it would hurt. I just didn’t know it would hurt this much.” See you next Tuesday, Betty!
Broadway TheaTAHs dimmed their marquee lights for 1 minute in honor of Bea Arthur at 8pm, Tuesday April 28th, 2009.
You can leave your sentiments on the memorial at Findagrave.
In 1998, Bea Arthur did an interview with A&U magazine (Art & Understanding – a periodical dealing with HIV & AIDS) where Bea tried to make sense of disease and death and claimed she wasn’t a spiritual person. She told the interviewer: “I’m even wondering now whether cancer for instance is not just a way of keeping things in balance. You know what I mean…So many people are being born. We’re getting so overpopulated. It’s so scary and so immoral.” Bea also told the interviewer that if she had not been in showbiz she would most likely be running a hospice. In her own life, Bea Arthur had made the decision to assist her blind and deaf Mother in her suicide. Bea added, “She really just wanted out. You do what you have to do.” When asked how she felt about death, she replied “I think of it as peace.”
Back to crass, I have to recognize the Comedy Central Roasts that Bea was involved with. Occasionally it would blow up in her face. During a roast for Jerry Stiller, one comic, after following Sandra Bernhardt said, “I wouldn’t f*ck Sandra Bernhardt with Bea Arthur’s dick.”
Bea herself liked a bit of bawdy. Here is her presentation at Pamela Anderson’s Roast. Not safe for work. Not by a long shot. But very very funny.
PS: Wanna see Bea’s Box?
The Ali Forney Center received a gift of $300,000.00 today from the Estate of legendary actress Bea Arthur. The Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth. They plan to purchase a building to house 12 youths and name it her honor.
Speaking of, James Rieker reminded me of a show Lenora Claire put together a couple of years ago, called Golden Girls Gone Wild. Lenora found a painting of Bea topless, and created an art exhibition dedicated to gerontophilia.