Emmy-winning and Tony-winning actress Beatrice Arthur (better known as Bea Arthur) died today at her Los Angeles home due to complications from cancer. She was 86.
Ms. Arthur starred as the lead in two major influential TV series: Maude (CBS, 1972-78) and The Golden Girls (NBC, 1985-92.) She was also a stage actress, who had performed on Broadway.
Before her TV roles, Ms. Arthur appeared in the Broadway plays Fiddler on the Roof and in the musical Mame, among others. Off-Broadway, she was cast in the 1954 stage play, The Threepenny Opera.
After years of bit parts in several television roles, Ms. Arthur finally nabbed a major role as Maude Findlay as the liberal cousin of Edith Bunker, the husband of blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker on the groundbreaking sitcom All in the Family. The heated exchanges between Maude and Archie Bunker were so entertaining, she was given her own spin-off.
Maude debuted on September 12, 1972, and dealt with controversial issues such as alcoholism, menopause, divorce, and abortion. In fact, two episodes of the series (titled “Maude’s Dilemma”) which dealt with Maude contemplating whether or not to get an abortion, were dropped by 40 CBS affiliates when it was reran in August 1973.
Maude ranked in the top ten for its’ first four seasons, but by its last season (1977-78), it had dropped to 66th place. The series was revamped in 1978 in which Maude was elected as an U.S. Congressman and the series’ setting was shifted to Washington D.C., but Ms. Arthur left the series three episodes in.
She returned to the small screen in early 1983 with the Americanized version of Faulty Towers, titled Amanda’s (one of the few network series Viacom would produce.) The series -about a woman who ran a seaside hotel – checked out after ten episodes, with three left unaired.
She would have better luck two years later in The Golden Girls, which debuted on September 14, 1985. Ms. Arthur played Dorothy, a widower who shared a Miami house with three other other women (played by Betty White, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan – who played Ms. Arthur’s next door neighbor on Maude.)
Like Maude, the program often dealt with controversial subjects (though in a less serious way) including impotence, gay marriage, plastic surgery, and AIDS. The program became one of NBC’s biggest hits – on a Saturday no less, and was in the top ten until the 1991-92 season, when a switch to an earlier time period sent it to 30th place. Ms. Arthur left in 1992, and the series moved to CBS with the three remaining ladies and was renamed The Golden Palace. All in all, The Golden Girls was nominated for a total of 65 Emmy Awards, and won eleven of them.
In 2002, Ms. Arthur returned to Broadway in the one-woman show Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends and made appearances on a few television series including Curb Your Enthusiasm and Malcolm in the Middle (where she played Dewey’s babysitter and earned an Emmy nomination.) She also had a guest-voice role on Futurama – and for worse, also appeared in the poorly-received Star Wars Holiday Special.
Ms. Arthur was inducted in the TV Academy Hall of Fame last year. She is survived by her sons and two granddaughters.