Tony- And Emmy-winning Actress Dies At 86

Bea Arthur 1922-2009

April 26, 2009|By Claudia Luther | Claudia Luther,Tribune Newspapers

LOS ANGELES -Bea Arthur, best known as the acerbic Maude Findlay on Norman Lear's sitcom Maude and as the strong-willed Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls, died Saturday. She was 86.

Ms. Arthur, a stage-trained actress who was a success on Broadway long before television audiences got to know her, died of cancer at her Los Angeles home, family spokesman Dan Watt told the Associated Press.

In 1966, the tall and husky-voiced Ms. Arthur won a Tony for her performance as Angela Lansbury's sharp-tongued sidekick, Vera Charles, in the original production of Mame on Broadway.

But Ms. Arthur had little experience in either film or TV when Mr. Lear spotted her singing a song called "Garbage" in an off-Broadway show, The Shoestring Revue. In 1971, Mr. Lear brought her to Hollywood for a guest role on the CBS series All in the Family. She played Edith Bunker's loud-mouthed cousin, Maude, who tangled with Edith's equally loud-mouthed husband, Archie Bunker, from opposite sides of the political fence.

Within a year, Ms. Arthur had her own show, Maude, which ran for six years on CBS.

In the series, Maude lives in Tuckahoe, N.Y., with her fourth husband, Walter Findlay (played by Bill Macy), daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), grandson Phillip (Brian Morrison), and a maid named Florida (Esther Rolle), whose sassy repartee with her employer was one of the best parts of the show. (Ms. Rolle's character spun off into another series, Good Times.)

Maude came at the onset of the feminist movement and addressed serious issues, including infidelity, death, depression and abortion, but there were always laughs. Maude's most famous line, delivered often and with withering drollery, was: "God will get you for that, Walter."

Playing Maude earned Ms. Arthur five Emmy nominations and a statuette in 1977. But, despite the show's enormous success, Ms. Arthur did not enjoy being the public face of feminism, a role she said was thrust upon her.

"It put a lot of unnecessary pressure on me," she told The Chicago Sun-Times in 2001.

After Ms. Arthur left Maude, she returned to TV briefly in 1983 for Amanda's, ABC's failed takeoff of the British series Fawlty Towers. She returned to television in triumph in 1985 as Dorothy Zbornak, the divorcee on The Golden Girls. The NBC hit ran from 1985 to 1992, twice won Emmys for best comedy and has enjoyed a long afterlife in syndication.

The Golden Girls followed the lives of three older women sharing a household in Miami with Dorothy's widowed mother, Sophia (Estelle Getty), who has suffered a small stroke that frees her from the constraints of tactfulness.

Much of what made the show work was the snappy mother-daughter dialogue, with Ms. Arthur as what executive producer Paul Witt called the "isle of sanity who could look at the other three characters from the audience's perspective."

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