Bea Arthur, star of Maude and The Golden Girls, is dead at 86. Arthur died in her sleep early Saturday morning at her home in Los Angeles. She had previously been suffering from cancer. She is survived by two sons, a sister and two granddaughters.
Growing up in a women’s clothing shop her parents ran as a team in the 1920s, Bea Arthur would grow up to give a voice to women and senior citizens who sometimes had trouble getting television executives to take them seriously. She portrayed characters who were political but very human, sometimes vulnerable but deep down full of courage.
Bea Arthur first played the role of Maude Findlay on Norman Lear’s All in the Family. She was Edith’s concerned and caring sister who didn’t mind talking back to Archie Bunker about his flagrant racism. Since Edith was always the peace maker and rather lacking in analytical depth she had rarely called her husband on his outdated attitudes so Maude easily became a hero for saying what her sister wouldn’t.
Arthur earned her own spinoff, Maude, in 1972. Long before Barack Obama disavowed a red and blue America, Maude was a knee-jerk upper-middle-class liberal who told off anyone who disagreed with her. Though executive producer Norman Leer was himself very liberal he sometimes portrayed Maude as going over the line or being somewhat hypocritical, even if she was right to be impassioned. Maude offered a counterpoint to the Richard Nixon administration, holding much the same cultural role that Murphy Brown would more than a decade later.
The series reached its peak when Maude accidentally became pregnant at 47 years old. After two episodes of grieving over the decision she felt she had to make she had an abortion. The episode aired two weeks before the Roe vs. Wade decision was handed down. The backlash was so strong from cultural conservatives that at least 30 stations dropped the show.
In 1985 Arthur began her second signature role as Dorothy Zbornak, a divorced grandmother living enjoying her golden years with two friends in a similar situation, on The Golden Girls. NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff conceived of Dorothy when he was visiting his elderly aunt and saw how she and her friends constantly made fun of each other but had grown to become like family.
On the surface, Dorothy was a less political character, spending much of her time trying to fend off the constant pleas and selfish requests of her philandering-but-still-needy ex-husband, Stan. But just by painting a sympathetic human portrait of older women, who had rarely been given a voice on television, she was shaping America’s social consciousness. A lot of women from The Greatest Generation found comfort and company in watching Bea Arthur.
Arthur held a number of other significant roles, reprising her Tony Award winner Broadway role as Vera Charles in Mame opposite Lucille Ball and in the much-maligned 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. Late in her career she made cameo appearances on Futurama and Malcolm in the Middle. In 2002 she began a one-woman-show, Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends, in which she sang and told stories from her life and career.
-Henry Jenkins, BuddyTV Staff Writer
(Image courtesy of CBS)