By the time that she became known to millions of television viewers as Edith Bunker’s sharp-tongued cousin Maude, Beatrice Arthur (May 13, 1922-April 25, 2009) was already a seasoned actress with a lengthy resume of theatrical credits. Before that fateful appearance on All In The Family in 1971, where her clashes with Archie over differing political views were legendary, Arthur had been wowing audiences on and off Broadway for over twenty-five years in such productions as Fiddler On The Roof and Mame…and that’s just to name a few!
Born with the name Bernice Frankel in New York, Arthur began acting lessons in the late 1940s, where her natural abilities in the field quickly won her small roles in off-Broadway productions. Thanks to the exceptional quality of her performances, she soon began landing guest appearances on television as well. She was a regular for one season on Sid Caesar’s Caesar’s Hour in 1954. She also did a few film roles before finally coming to television on a regular basis in 1971. But even with her huge success in television and film, the stage always remained her first love. Arthur loved the stage so much in fact, that she initially refused the TV role which would eventually make her a household name.
Every time that she was approached by All In The Family producer Norman Lear about her now famous guest role, she put him off, saying that she had no interest in television work and no desire to leave New York. Finally, Lear caught up with her again when she visited her husband, Gene Saks, in Hollywood where he was directing the film The Last Of The Red Hot Lovers in 1971. After much coaxing, Lear finally convinced her to do the part.
As it turned out, casting Arthur in the role was an absolutely inspired move. Viewers and critics alike delighted in watching bigoted Archie Bunker trade barbs with liberal open-minded Maude. The overwhelmingly favorable response of both the viewers and the network moved Lear to create a new series in which Maude Findley was the central character. Although the pilot for the new show was presented on All In The Family, Maude officially premiered as a series on September 12, 1972.
Like its parent show, Maude was never afraid to tackle controversial subject matter. During it’s six year run, the show covered topics like abortion, sexism, race-relations, and marijuana laws. Despite, or perhaps because of the controversy it caused, the show remained in the top of the ratings for most of its run. While on hiatus between the show’s first and second seasons, Bea revisited her role as Vera Charles for the film version of Mame, which was directed by her husband and starred Lucille Ball in the title role.
Maude continued for five more seasons on CBS. Bea’s performance not only won her critical praise, it brought her one Emmy win, as well as numerous other nominations. At the start of the show’s sixth season, Bea announced that she would leave the show at the completion of that year. Realizing that it could not continue without her, the show ended in 1978 while still at the height of its popularity.
Following the end of Maude, Miss Arthur returned to Broadway until 1983 when she again attempted series television, starring in the very short-lived series Amanda’s, which was based on the British comedy series Fawlty Towers. After the show’s failure, she was all set to take refuge on the stage when fate once again intervened. Although she didn’t know it at the time, lightning was about to strike twice!
In 1985, Bea got another television series. She was set to co-star alongside Betty White, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan in a show about four middle-aged women who share a house in Miami. The Golden Girls hit the air in the fall of 1985 and was an instant smash! Bea played the character of Dorothy Zbornak, a wise-cracking fifty-something divorcee, who worked as a substitute teacher. The show continued for seven seasons, and each actress won an Emmy as well as several other awards for their work throughout the show’s run!
Ironically, it was Bea who ended the show after its seventh season, just as she had done with Maude. She walked away when the show was at the height of its popularity. The producers then recruited Richard “Cheech” Marin into the cast, and the remaining actresses began The Golden Palace, in which Rose, Blanche, and Sophia decide to open a hotel, hiring Marin as a cook. The new show flopped, however, and was canceled after only one year.
After her departure from The Golden Girls in 1992, Arthur became something of a recluse, keeping a low profile until 2001, when she returned to the Broadway stage in a one-woman show titled And Then There’s Bea. She continued to perform in similar shows off and on from 2001, until finally closing her one-woman show for good in March of 2006. After this, she once again went into semi-retirement, only recording audio and video pieces for DVD presentations and television biographies. Sadly, Bea succumbed to cancer and passed away on April 25, 2009, at the age of 86.