Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bea Arthur (1922-2009)

A legend of Broadway and television (and the master of droll comedy), Bea Arthur has died today at her home in California. The Emmy and Tony winning actress was 86 and the cause was cancer. Arthur, born Bernice Frankel in 1922, was distinctive for her height and bass-baritone voice, not to mention her incisive wit, and found a real niche in playing strong, sardonic women.

Arthur was a staple of NY theatre of the 1950s, appearing in the original off-Broadway cast of Marc Blitzstein's acclaimed production of The Threepenny Opera, standing by for Shirl Conway in Plain and Fancy and appearing in the original casts of Seventh Heaven and The Shoestring Revue. In the mid-60s, Arthur had back to back successes in two smash hit shows: as the original Yente, the matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof and her Tony-winning triumph as the booze-addled bosom buddy Vera Charles in the original cast of Mame, a role she'd repeat in the disastrous 1974 film adaptation. (I had just commented only the other day that she is the only reason to watch the film, shining where the rest of the production does not).

From her New York stage successes, her friend Norman Lear asked her to come to Los Angeles for a one-off guest spot on All in the Family playing the ultra-liberal cousin of Edith Bunker, named Maude. Her sparring with Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker over the presidency of FDR in that episode alone was enough for CBS executives to offer Bea her own spin-off series. Maude premiered the following season and became a controversial success, even more controversial than its original series in its willingness to tackle every taboo subject under the umbrella. In the sixth episode of the series, her character had an abortion, an entire year before the Roe v. Wade decision marking a television first. There was considerable outrage, which only added to the series's success. Maude had six successful years on CBS, ending only because Bea was ready to move on.

Her other successful series came in 1985 with The Golden Girls, in which Arthur was top-billed as divorced substitute teacher Dorothy Zbornak, living with her two best friends and sassy mother in Miami. The second series broke ground as it took a comic look at older women living in contemporary America, with Arthur playing perfectly off her costars Betty White, Rue McClanahan and the late Estelle Getty. It ran for seven years, again ending when Bea decided to move on. A spin-off series putting the remaining three women in a hotel The Golden Palace lasted one season. Bea was awarded with Emmys for her turns on both series. Arthur also starred in the failed series Amanda, an Americanization of the popular Fawlty Towers series from the UK. (And more obscurely, she also appeared in the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special). Her film appearances included Lovers and Other Strangers and The History of the World, Part I.

Bea grew up in Maryland, finding confidence and friends in her ability to make wisecracks. Originally, attended college and got a degree as a medical technician, but hated the work. Arthur signed up for acting classes at the New School for Social Research (where everyone seemed to flock, including the similarly deadpan Elaine Stritch, who tells of a failed Golden Girls audition in her one woman show). She got her stage name from her shortlived marriage to writer Robert Alan Aurthur. Arthur was married to director Gene Saks, with whom they had two sons. Bea was also an ardent animal rights activist and a member of PETA. She continued making appearances well into her eighties, with guest spots on Malcolm in the Middle and Curb Your Enthusiasm. There was also touring one woman show And Then There's Bea which came to New York as Bea Arthur on Broadway, earning her a Tony nomination for Best Theatrical Event. Arthur was also a staple on various awards shows, most notably the TV Land awards spoof of Sex and the City with Arthur playing Carrie Bradshaw, as well as the Pam Anderson roast on Comedy Central where Arthur delivered a deadpan reading of Anderson's ribald novel. Arthur is survived by her two sons and two granddaughters.

Thankfully all seasons of The Golden Girls and her film appearances are available on DVD. However, only the first season of Maude has been issued on DVD - and that was two years ago. Sony should seriously consider bringing the remaining five seasons out on DVD, especially for her fans. Here are a couple videos with which we can celebrate Arthur's life and talent. First up is from her first appearance as Maude on All in the Family:

Maude's telethon has turned into an on-air disaster and she has to save it:

This is from Bea's favorite bit on The Golden Girls where Dorothy and Sophia dressed up as Sonny and Cher for a mother-daughter competition.

And this is the hilarious Sex and the City parody:

And finally, here is Bea and her good friend and costar Angela Lansbury reprising their showstopping "Bosom Buddies" from Mame on the 1987 Tony awards.

1 comment:

Vamprowler said...

Kev! What a delight it was to watch all of the youtubes starring Bea!! I loved them all!! I remember the All In The Family episode! What a riot!
Thank you so much for sharing :)
'Rest in peace, Bea, you were an extraordinary entertainer.'