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Beatrice Arthur Dies At 86

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Beatrice Arthur, the tall, deep-voiced
actress whose razor-sharp delivery of comedy lines made her a TV
star in the hit shows "Maude" and "The Golden Girls" and who
won a Tony Award for the musical "Mame," died Saturday. She was
86.
Arthur died peacefully at her Los Angeles home with her family
at her side, family spokesman Dan Watt said. She had cancer, Watt
said, declining to give details.
"She was a brilliant and witty woman," said Watt, who was
Arthur's personal assistant for six years. "Bea will always have a
special place in my heart."
Arthur first appeared in the landmark comedy series "All in the
Family" as Edith Bunker's outspoken, liberal cousin, Maude Finley.
She proved a perfect foil for blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker
(Carroll O'Connor), and their blistering exchanges were so
entertaining that producer Norman Lear fashioned Arthur's own
series.
In a 2008 interview with The Associated Press, Arthur said she
was lucky to be discovered by TV after a long stage career,
recalling with bemusement CBS executives asking about the new
"girl."
"I was already 50 years old. I had done so much off-Broadway,
on Broadway, but they said, `Who is that girl? Let's give her her
own series,"' Arthur said.
"Maude" scored with television viewers immediately on its CBS
debut in September 1972, and Arthur won an Emmy Award for the role
in 1977.
The comedy flowed from Maude's efforts to cast off the
traditional restraints that women faced, but the series often had a
serious base. Her husband Walter (Bill Macy) became an alcoholic,
and she underwent an abortion, which drew a torrent of viewer
protests. Maude became a standard bearer for the growing feminist
movement in America.
"She was an incredible actress and a woman I will miss, and I
think everyone else will," said Bud Yorkin, producer of "Maude"
with partner Lear.
The ratings of "Maude" in the early years approached those of
its parent, "All in the Family," but by 1977 the audience started
to dwindle. A major format change was planned, but in early 1978
Arthur announced she was quitting the show.
"It's been absolutely glorious; I've loved every minute of
it," she said. "But it's been six years, and I think it's time to
leave."
"Golden Girls" (1985-1992) was another groundbreaking comedy,
finding surprising success in a television market increasingly
skewed toward a younger, product-buying audience.
The series concerned three retirees - Arthur, Betty White and
Rue McClanahan - and the mother of Arthur's character, Estelle
Getty, who lived together in a Miami house. In contrast to the
violent "Miami Vice," the comedy was nicknamed "Miami Nice."
As Dorothy Zbornak, Arthur seemed as caustic and domineering as
Maude. She was unconcerned about the similarity of the two roles.
"Look - I'm 5-feet-9, I have a deep voice and I have a way with a
line," she told an interviewer. "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 interplay among the four women and their relations with men
fueled the comedy, and the show amassed a big audience and 10
Emmys, including two as best comedy series and individual awards
for each of the stars.
McClanahan said Arthur felt constrained by the show during its
later years and in 1992 she announced she was leaving "Golden
Girls."
"Bea liked to be the star of the show, she didn't really like
to do that ensemble playing," McClanahan said.
McClanahan first worked with Arthur on "Maude," playing her
best friend, Vivian. The women quickly became close friends in real
life. McClanahan recalled Arthur as a kind and caring person with a
no-nonsense edge.
The three other stars returned in "The Golden Palace," but it
lasted only one season.
Arthur was born Bernice Frankel in New York City in 1922. When
she was 11, her family moved to Cambridge, Md., where her father
opened a clothing store. At 12 she had grown to full height, and
she dreamed of being a petite blond movie star like June Allyson.
There was one advantage of being tall and deep-voiced: She was
chosen for the male roles in school plays.
Bernice - she hated the name and adopted her mother's nickname
of Bea - overcame shyness about her size by winning over her
classmates with wisecracks. She was elected the wittiest girl in
her class. After two years at a junior college in Virginia, she
earned a degree as a medical lab technician, but she "loathed"
doing lab work at a hospital.
Acting held more appeal, and she enrolled in a drama course at
the New School of Social Research in New York City. To support
herself, she sang in a night spot that required her to push drinks
on customers.
During this time she had a brief marriage that provided her
stage name of Beatrice Arthur. In 1950, she married again, to
Broadway actor and future Tony-winning director Gene Saks.
After a few years in off-Broadway and stock company plays and
television dramas, Arthur's career gathered momentum with her role
as Lucy Brown in the 1955 production of "The Threepenny Opera."
In 2008, when Arthur was inducted in the TV Academy Hall of
Fame, Arthur pointed to the role as the highlight of her long
career.
"A lot of that had to do with the fact that I felt, `Ah, yes, I
belong here,"' Arthur said.
More plays and musicals followed, and she also sang in
nightclubs and played small roles in TV comedy shows.
Then, in 1964, Harold Prince cast her as Yente the Matchmaker in
the original company of "Fiddler on the Roof."
Arthur's biggest Broadway triumph came in 1966 as Vera Charles,
Angela Lansbury's acerbic friend in the musical "Mame," directed
by Saks. Richard Watts of the New York Post called her performance
"a portrait in acid of a savagely witty, cynical and
serpent-tongued woman."
"She was a rare and unique performer and a dear, dear friend,"
Lansbury said in a statement.
Arthur won the Tony as best supporting actress and repeated the
role in the unsuccessful film version that also was directed by
Saks, starring Lucille Ball as Mame. Arthur would play a variation
of Vera Charles in "Maude" and "The Golden Girls."
"There was no one else like Bea," said "Mame" composer Jerry
Herman. "She would make us laugh during `Mame' rehearsals with a
look or with a word. She didn't need dialogue. I don't know if I
can say that about any other person I ever worked with."
In 1983, Arthur attempted another series, "Amanda's," an
Americanized version of John Cleese's hilarious "Fawlty Towers."
She was cast as owner of a small seaside hotel with a staff of
eccentrics. It lasted a mere nine episodes.
Between series, Arthur remained active in films and theater.
Among the movies: "That Kind of Woman" (1959), "Lovers and Other
Strangers" (1970), Mel Brooks' "The History of the World: Part
I" (1981), "For Better or Worse" (1995).
The plays included Woody Allen's "The Floating Light Bulb" and
"The Bermuda Avenue Triangle," written by and costarring Renee
Taylor and Joseph Bologna. During 2001 and 2002 she toured the
country in a one-woman show of songs and stories, "... And Then
There's Bea."
Arthur and Saks divorced in 1978 after 28 years. They had two
sons, Matthew and Daniel. In his long career, Saks won Tonys for
"I Love My Wife," "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Biloxi
Blues." One of his Tony nominations was for "Mame."
In 1999, Arthur told an interviewer of the three influences in
her career: "Sid Caesar taught me the outrageous; (method acting
guru) Lee Strasberg taught me what I call reality; and ('Threepenny
Opera' star) Lotte Lenya, whom I adored, taught me economy."
In recent years, Arthur made guest appearances on shows
including "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Malcolm in the Middle."
She was chairwoman of the Art Attack Foundation, a nonprofit
performing arts scholarship organization, and was an honorary
director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Arthur is survived by her sons and two granddaughters. No
funeral services are planned.


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