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Bea Arthur was a true 'Golden Girl'

April 25, 2009 |  4:18 pm

Bea Arthur, who died Saturday at 86, was the winner of two Emmy Awards for her starring roles on classic sitcoms "Maude" and "The Golden Girls." Before becoming an unexpected TV star in the 1970s, Bea Arthur enjoyed a long and celebrated career in the theater. She won a Tony Award for featured actress in a musical in 1966 for the role of Vera Charles, bosom buddy to "Mame."

Bea Arthur Emmy Awards Tony Awards Maude Golden Girls Mame

Married at the time to theater director Gene Saks, who helmed this tuner adaptation of the play "Auntie Mame," Arthur made no secret of the fact that she would have loved to play the part of the glamourous title character, a part that went to Angela Lansbury. With her basso voice and deadpan delivery, Arthur had to settle for the sidekick role, which turned out to be a natural for her — the man-eating, gin-drinking actress Vera.

When the movie version was made in 1973, Lansbury lost her role to Lucille Ball, who then insisted on Arthur continuing in the part of Mame's best chum, over the likes of two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis. For her efforts, Arthur would contend for the supporting Golden Globe, losing to Karen Black ("The Great Gatsby").

Ball's demand was easier to accept as by then Arthur had become a TV star. As a favor to her longtime pal Norman Lear, Arthur has appeared on a 1971 episode of the smash hit "All in the Family" as Edith's liberated cousin Maude, who dared to contradict the bigoted Archie Bunker. So successful was this guest shot that CBS asked Lear to create a spin-off TV series for the character.

"Maude" premiered in September 1972 and ran for six seasons. As "that old compromisin', enterprisin', anything but tranquilizing" Maude Findlay, Bea Arthur created a memorable persona that earned her a place in the TV pantheon. She was the first lead character in TV history to have an abortion in a powerful two-part episode that aired in November 1972, months before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the issue.

Surprisingly, Arthur would have to wait until the fifth season of the show before she won an Emmy for this groundbreaking role. She lost her first three bids (for seasons one, two, and four) to Mary Tyler Moore in her self-titled sitcom. For Arthur, the fourth time would be the charm as she pulled off an upset, defeating sentimental favorite Moore, who was signing off after seven years.

The following year, Arthur lost both her Emmy nods. For the final season of "Maude," Arthur was edged out by her TV cousin, Jean Stapleton, who picked up her third Emmy for "All in the Family." Arthur was also nominated for a guest spot on the return of the variety series "Laugh In," but lost to "Saturday Night Live" regular Gilda Radner.

After a fallow few years, Arthur returned to TV in an unlikely hit -- "The Golden Girls" -- which celebrated women of a certain age living together in Miami. As the tart-tongued Dorothy, Arthur was a natural dueling with on-screen roommates rambling Rose (Betty White) and bawdy Blanche (Rue McClanahan) as well as her diminutive but domineering mother Sophia (Estelle Getty). While Arthur earned Emmy nods in each of the first two seasons, she lost first to White, then to McClanahan.

It would not be until season three that Arthur would win that Emmy bookend. With Getty also winning that night In the supporting slot), the quartet joined "All in the Family" in the Emmy record book as the only sitcoms with an entirely award-winning cast. ("Will & Grace" would become the third such show when Debra Messing finally won her Emmy in 2003.) Like Moore before her, Arthur decided to leave this still red-hot sitcom after seven seasons. In the two-part finale, Dorothy finally found true love and married.


Below, Bea and Angie recreate that classic moment from "Mame" when the dear friends reveal what they truly think of each other as the two Broadway divas belt out "Bosom Buddies" on the 1987 Tonycast. While both Bea and Angie had won Tonys for their performances 21 years earlier, "Mame" lost best musical of 1966 to "Man of La Mancha."

Photo: ATAS

Arthur guested the following year on the short-lived spinoff "The Golden Palace," which had her three co-stars running a small hotel. Beyond that, she seldom appeared on TV. In 2000, she competed in her final Emmy race for a guest spot on "Malcolm in the Middle," but lost to Jean Smart, who won the first of two consecutive Emmys for "Frasier."

In later years, Arthur returned to her first love -- live theater -- and in 2002 came to New York with her one-woman show titled quite simply "Bea Arthur on Broadway." She contended for the Tony Award for special theatrical event, but lost to Elaine Stritch, who was starring in her own solo show "At Liberty." In one of those odd twists of theatrical fate, one of the many stories recounted by Stritch was about her ill-fated audition for a role in "The Golden Girls."


For sale: Estelle Getty's Emmy award and Golden Globe

Bea Arthur: 'Loved her. Was there ever a better deadpan?'

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