Actress-comedienne Bea Arthur was born Bernice Frankel on May 13, 1922 in New York City to a Jewish family. She grew up in Maryland, where her parents ran a dress shop. At 12 years old, she was the tallest girl in her school at 5’9″.
She earned the title of “Wittiest Girl” in her school, and her dream was to be in show business, but didn’t think her family would support her on that. She then worked as a laboratory technician, drove a truck, and worked as a typist in the Marine Corps. Her brief first marriage ended in divorce. Afterwards, she told her parents she wanted to pursue a career in show business, and they supported her decision to join the New York’s Dramatic Workshop for the New School for Social Research.
Arthur (her acting name based on a variation of her first husband’s surname) played classical and dramatic roles, but it would be years before she found her niche in comedy. Her breakthrough came on stage while appearing in the musical play “The Threepenny Opera,” with Lotte Lenya. For one season in the 1950’s, she was a regular on Sid Caesar’s television show,Caesar’s Hour (1954). In 1964, she became truly famous as Yente the Matchmaker, in the original Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof”. While a small supporting role, Arthur stole the show night after night.
In 1966, she went to work on a new Broadway musical, “Mame”, directed by her second husband, Gene Saks, winning a Tony Award for the featured role of Vera Charles. The show’s star, Angela Lansbury, also won a Tony Award, and she and Bea became lifelong friends. In 1971, Arthur appeared on the hit sitcom All in the Family (1971) as Maude Findlay, Edith Bunker’s cousin, who was forever driving Archie Bunker crazy with her liberal politics. The guest appearance led to Arthur’s own series, Maude (1972). The show was a hit, running for six years, during which many controversial topics of the time, including abortion, were tackled, and Bea won her first Emmy Award. While doing Maude (1972), Arthur repeated the role of Vera Charles in the film version of Mame (1974), again directed by Gene Saks, but it was a dismal flop. She also appeared on The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978). While appearing in Maude (1972), she raised her two sons, whom she had adopted with husband Gene Saks. After the show ended, so did her marriage to Saks. She never remarried, and became a lifelong animal rights’ activist.
In 1983, she started working on a new sitcom, Amanda’s (1983), patterned after BritaIn’s Fawlty Towers (1975) but it was short-lived. In 1985, came The Golden Girls (1985) made its debut. Co-starring Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty, the show was about the lives of three middle-aged women, and one’s elderly mother, (played by Getty, who was actually younger than White and Arthur), living in Miami. It was an immediate hit, running for seven seasons. All of the cast members, including Arthur, won Emmy Awards during the show’s run. She left when she thought each show was at its peak. The producers realized the shows wouldn’t be the same without her. In 1992, The Golden Girls (1985) was canceled. Arthur kept a low profile, appearing in only two movies: For Better or Worse (1995) and Enemies of Laughter (2000).
In 1999, Arthur made an appearance at The N.Y. Friars Club Roast of Jerry Stiller (1999). She did a one-woman stage show in 2001, for which she received a Tony Award nomination. In 2003, she reunited with Betty White and Rue McClanahan for The Golden Girls (1985) reunion special on the Lifetime Channel. Noticeably absent was supporting actress Estelle Getty, who was ill. The three lead actresses made appearances together for the rest of the decade to promote DVD releases of The Golden Girls (1985). They appeared together for the last time in 1998, at the TV Land Awards, receiving a standing ovation as they accepted the Pop Culture Award. She attended, with Angela Lansbury, her induction into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.
On April 25, 2009, at home with her family, Arthur died of cancer. She was 86. She was survived by her two sons, Matthew and Daniel, and her grandchildren, Kyra and Violet. In her will, she left $300,000 to New York’s Ali Forney Center, an organization supporting homeless LGBT youths.
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