Although my CharredHer homepage finally got its act together and included a nice obituary/tribute to the late Bea Arthur (well worth a read) I first learned of her passing at the age of 86 from Bill Crider, who must subscribe to some death notice service—rarely does a celebrity appointment with the Grim Reaper escape his attention. Arthur’s death is particularly saddening for someone who vegetated in front of a TV set most of his life (that would be me, in case you were curious) because although she received a good many kudos for her stage work (including a Tony Award for her supporting performance as Vera Charles in the Broadway musical Mame) TV is probably the medium for which many know her best, with her Emmy-award winning titular role in Maude and her later success as Dorothy Petrillo Zbornak in the hit sitcom The Golden Girls (for which she also copped a pair of Emmys).
Too often words like “television pioneer” are tossed around to describe boob tube celebrities who have gone on to their rich reward, but I think in Bea Arthur’s case the description more than applies. Her role as Maude Finlay—first in appearances on All in the Family, and then as the first successful Family spin-off—was a breath of fresh air on the glass furnace, as the character of Maude was inarguably TV’s first feminist. In a tribute to Arthur over at Salon.com, writer Rebecca Traister muses:
But it’s also important to remember that before “Dollhouse,” before “Sex and the City,” there was “Maude.” The “All in the Family” spin-off, which ran from 1972 to 1978, starred Arthur as Maude Findlay, the Democratic-voting, women’s liberation-supporting, four times married cousin of Edith Bunker. The program, created by television visionary Norman Lear, made the news early in its run for featuring prime time’s first abortion, in a two-part episode that aired two months before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across the country.
Traister also points out that Bea’s follow-up success, The Golden Girls, was also a groundbreaking series, “remarkable to think, given how young, glossy and pneumatic network television has become, that less than 20 years ago, the airwaves were given over to four older women who talked about sex and ex-husbands and ate cheesecake”:
Many others have observed that “The Golden Girls” was “Sex and the City” before “Sex and the City,” or alternately that the “Sex and the City” ladies were only a few decades away from drinks on the lanai themselves. The show was one of the most female-friendly and respectful looks at the experience of aging while female ever broadcast on national airwaves, simply by showing women — living, talking, having sex, making friends, cracking wise, living full lives together with energy and engagement. And if you happen to catch one of the reruns that still air, chances are good you’ll laugh your ass off.
And as long as there exist such channels as Lifetime and Hallmark, there’ll never be a shortage of reruns—thus sayeth the Lord.
Arthur starred in a third television series that was based on the classic Britcom Fawlty Towers, Amanda’s—and while many have argued (and rightly so) that duplicating the success of John Cleese and Connie Booth’s masterful creation was a fool’s errand I’ve always believed that the Arthur version had some potential. The problem with the American version is that Arthur’s character had no one to hold her in check (her wimpy nephew Marty, played by Fred McCarren, certainly fell short of the task) in the league of Prunella Scales (who played Basil Fawlty’s wife Sybil). But the more I think about it, it would have been impossible to find anyone capable of such a job, simply because the formidable Arthur was an unstoppable force of nature (the producers of Maude always tried to sell the audience that husband Walter [Bill Macy] ultimately ruled the roost in that household, something even Ripley wouldn’t believe [“God’ll get you for that, Walter…”].)
Movie wise, Arthur appeared in but a handful of films—the most notable being an adaptation of Mame (1974), which allowed her to reprise her Vera Charles role, and History of the World: Part I (1981), which gave her a funny cameo as an unemployment office clerk talking to Mel Brooks’ stand-up philosopher (“Oh, a bullshit artist…did you bullshit last week? Did you try to bullshit last week?”) Bea’s best movie showcase was Lovers and Other Strangers (1970); with her portrayal of distraught Italian matriarch Bea Vecchio (married to Richard “So what’s the story?” Castellano) who goes into apoplexy upon learning that her son (Joseph Hindy) is contemplating divorcing his wife (Diane Keaton). Written by Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor (based on their stage play) and directed by My Friend Irma/Life With Luigi creator Cy Howard, it’s a neglected little gem that’s worth a look-see—with a cast that also includes Gig Young, Bonnie Bedelia, Cloris Leachman, Anne Jackson, Anne Meara, Harry Guardino, and Bob Dishy.
R.I.P. Ms. Arthur. You will be missed terribly.