Gina Wilhelm Actress – Remembering Bea Arthur
Bea Arthur, star of “Maude” and “The Golden Girls,” and Tony Award winner for “Mame,” passed away this weekend at the age of 86.
Arthur started early, getting elected wittiest girl in class in school. She got a degree as a medical lab technician, but discovered that she “loathed” hospital work.
She took a drama course at the New School of Social Research in New York. She sang at a night spot.
Her career started to really gain headway when she was cast as Lucy Brown in the 1955 production of “The Threepenny Opera.”
When she was inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame in 2008, she pointed to that as the highlight of her career. She said it was then that she felt “Ah, yes, I belong here.”
She continued in nightclub acts, plays, and musicals, before being originating the role of Yente the Matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Her greatest triumph on Broadway came in 1966, when she was cast as Vera Charles in “Mame.”
The New York Post called her portrayal “a portrait in acid of a savagely witty, cynical, and serpent-tongued woman.”
She won the Tony for best supporting actress for that role and went on to repeat role in the film version of the show.
In many ways, her characters on “Maude” and “The Golden Girls” would be variations on Vera Charles.
On television, she first appeared on “All in the Family” as Maude Finley, who was a great foil for Archie Bunker as played by Caroll O’Connor.
The exchanges between Arthur and O’Connor were so entertaining that producer Norman Lear created a series around her.
“Maude” debuted in 1972. Arthur won an Emmy for her role on that show in 1977. The character became a standard bearer for the feminist movement.
“The Golden Girls” was also groundbreaking, particularly finding success in a television market geared toward younger audiences.
She was unconcerned at the similarity between her character on that show, Dorothy Zbornak, and Maude.
“Look,” she said, “I’m 5-feet-9, I have a deep voice and I have a way with a line. What can I do about it? I can’t stay home waiting for something different. I think it’s a total waste of energy worrying about typecasting.”
The show gained a huge audience and 10 Emmys, including two for best comedy series and acting awards for each of the stars.
She was close friends with her costars on that show. Rue McClanahan remembered Arthur as kind, caring, and no nonsense.
McClanahan said, “she showed me how to be very brave in playing comedy. I’ll miss that courage. And I’ll miss that voice.”
Fellow costar Betty White added “She was such a big part of my life.”
Between television series, she continued to perform in film and on stage. On screen, she was in “That Kind of Woman,” “Lovers and Other Strangers,” “The History of the World: Part I,” and “For Better or Worse.”
On stage she was in Woody Allen’s “The Floating Light Bulb” and “The Bermuda Avenue Triange.”
She toured the country in 2001 and 2002 in a one-woman show she called “…And Then There’s Bea.”
In 1999, she told of her three main influences: “Sid Caesar taught me the outrageous; Lee Strasberg taught me what I call reality; and Lotte Lenya, whom I adored, taught me economy.”
She will be tremendously missed.