Bea Arthur dies at 86

Though best known for her roles in “Golden Girls” and “Maude” (a spin-off from from All in the Family), Beatrice Arthur was also a talented and prolific stage actor, winning a Tony Award for best-supporting actress in the 1966 musical “Mame”, alongside Angela Lansbury.

Actress Beatrice Arthur accepting her Emmy award at the 40th anniversary of the Emmy's Arthur accepting the TV Land Award for Popular Culture on behalf of The Golden Girls Bea Arthur as "Maude"

From her obit:

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 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.

Between series, Arthur remained active in films and theater. 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 is survived by her sons and two granddaughters. No funeral services are planned.

Tony-award winner Bea Arthur died at the young-at-heart age of 86.  She will be deeply missed in the TV and theatre world.

Bea Arthur and Rock Hudson: Watching the video below is like entering some gay bizarro meta-verse where carefree socialites harmonically chortle about amyl nitrate, and U.S. television networks broadcast it into your home. Except evidently at one brief, brilliantly weird point in history, this world actually existed. It’s but one more example of just how singular a figure Bea Arthur cut into the pop culture firmament, and why she’ll be so deeply missed.