Bea Arthur Dies at 86

Bea Arthur, star of “Maude” and “The Golden Girls,” has died of cancer at 86.

This Aug. 29, 1988 file photo shows actress Beatrice Arthur accepting her Emmy award at the 40th annual Emmy Awards ceremony in Pasadena, Ca. Family spokesman Dan Watt says the 86-year-old Arthur died at home early Saturday, April 25, 2009. He says Arthur had cancer, but declined to give further details. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

This Aug. 29, 1988 file photo shows actress Beatrice Arthur accepting her Emmy award at the 40th annual Emmy Awards ceremony in Pasadena, Ca. Family spokesman Dan Watt says the 86-year-old Arthur died at home early Saturday, April 25, 2009. He says Arthur had cancer, but declined to give further details. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

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 further 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 loudly 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.

[…]

“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 apartment. 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.”

I grew up on those shows, which ran during an era when popular programs were seen by wideranging audiences because there weren’t 800 niche channels from which to choose.  We watched “All in the Family,” so I saw Arthur’s earliest appearances on the show.  (“Maude,” in turn, spun off “Good Times,” creating the rare spin-off of a spin-off.)

“Golden Girls” was a pure entertainment program, largely eschewing the politics of “Maude,” and is the thing for which she’s likely best known by the under-30 crowd.  For those a bit younger, she’s probably best known as the object of Tony Kornheiser’s racy jokes on PTI.

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.