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The Bea Arthur Only We Knew

Sep. 19 2023, Published 7:52 p.m. ET

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At her longtime home in Brentwood, California, Bea Arthur doted on her Dobermans, read, cooked and occasionally caught an episode of The Golden Girls. She never employed an assistant and liked to go to the grocery store herself.

“When people do come up to me, it’s only because they like what I do and they want to tell me they like it,” Arthur said in 2001. “It’s very sweet.”

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A theater actress who became a TV star on the seminal classics Maude and The Golden Girls, Arthur would have been 101 this year. The family and friends who knew her best describe a woman who loved her work but disliked the Hollywood scene.

“My mom wasn’t the type that would have around for after-work parties,” her son Matthew Saks said. “She just wanted to get back to her house. That was her routine.”

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At the home she had purchased in 1975 with her second husband, theater director Gene Saks, Arthur could be herself.

“This is country out here,” she revealed. “I tend to be lazy, and I don’t have to put shoes on. I can walk around without anything on and nobody cares, and it’s just lovely.”

Adrienne Barbeau, who played Arthur’s daughter, Carol, on Maude, remembers her aversion to shoes very well. “Sandals, maybe OK, but not shoes,” she said.

Barbeau also remembered her TV mom as a generous professional who would urge another actor to say her line if she thought it would get a better laugh.

“Beat taught me so much about comedy delivery and timing; and even more about putting the quality of the show above all else,” Barbeau said.

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But it’s the private side of Arthur that Barbeau remembers most fondly. “My favorite memory of Bea was standing in our rehearsal hall kitchen eating hard-boiled eggs. She taught me to put Tabasco sauce on them. I still do,” said the actress, who still makes Arthur’s recipe for Chinese chicken salad.

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An unlikely star

Born in New York City but reared in Maryland, the former Bernice Frankel had dreams, but was also practical.

“I always envisioned myself like Betty Grable,” Arthur once said. “Somebody really cute, and small, and blonde. To get out there and dance and sing.” But at 5 feet, 9 inches tall, the husky-voiced young woman struggled to find her calling.

During World War II, Arthur enlisted with the Marines, where she worked as a typist, truck driver and dispatcher. She wed her first husband, Robert Arthur, in 1944, and after her discharge, studied to become a medical technician. In 1947, the couple moved to New York, where Arthur began taking drama lessons with classmates Tony Curtis, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau and Harry Belafonte.

“It was a h— of a group,” she admitted. Theater would become a passion for Arthur, who went on to earn accolades on Broadway for Threepenny Opera, Fiddler on the Roof and Mame, which won her a Tony for best featured actress. Angela Lansbury, who played the title character, would become a lifelong friend.

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A new life

All in the Family creator Norman Lear was also a friend. He hired Arthur, then 48, for a two-part guest role playing Edith’s feminist cousin, Maude Findlay. Arthur’s role on the show was so well received it led to her own sitcom, Maude, which ran from 1972 to 1978, and won Arthur an Emmy.

“We tackled everything except hemorrhoids,” Arthur quipped about the series’ tendency to explore hot-button topics like abortion and alcoholism.

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But Arthur tried not to allow TV stardom to change her. Mark Bish, the son of her co-star Rue McClanahan, recalled attending a party at Arthurs’s home where she waited on her guests herself.

“I remember her coming around to me asking, “Mark, can I get you some food?” Bish said. “She was very concerned that I was having a good time at her party — and I did!”

The fun came to a halt after Maude went off the air in 1978. Arthur and Gene divorced. She endured more heartbreak as AIDS claimed the lives of many friends.

“I did a number of benefits,” said Arthur, who rarely talked about her frequent charity work. Her commitment was so deep that she bequeathed $300,000 to an outreach center for LGBTQ youth in New York that opened a residence that bears her name.

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And then in 1985, she was persuaded to return to TV for The Golden Girls.

“They sent me the script, and it was brilliant,” gushed Arthur. The show, about four older single women sharing a home, was a hit from the start.

“Like all TV shows, or even marriages, it was great in the beginning,” recalled Saks. “But over the six years, the ideas started to run out.”

And, yes, there was tension between Arthur, who came from theater, and Betty White, a longtime TV star.

“The problems they had were small compared to what they knew they were accomplishing,” said Jim Colucci, author of Golden Girls Forever, who explained that White often improvised in rehearsals while Arthur adhered strictly to the script.

“Bea would say something like, ‘Betty you get off book so fast it makes us all look bad! She was mostly joking,” said Colucci, who believed their feud was overblown.

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But Arthur never made apologies for wanting to make every episode the best.

“Someone once accused me of trying to turn a sitcom into an art form,” admitted Arthur, who died at 86 in 2009. “I really believe that’s what I was trying to do.”


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