Monday, April 27, 2009

an irrepressible icon worth remembering.

Bea Arthur — my favorite forbidden feminist and golden girl — died Saturday at her Los Angeles home of cancer. She was 86.

She was born a native New Yorker named Bernice Frankel. She adopted the nickname "B" as a child and lengthened it to Beatrice because she imagined it might look good up on a theatre marquee. The surname Arthur is a modified version of the name of her first husband, screenwriter and producer Robert Alan Aurthur.

While she is best known for the two iconic TV sitcom roles she played — fierce feminist Maude Findlay in the 1970s' Maude, and wisecracking Dorothy Zbornak in the 1980s' The Golden Girls — Bea had a long professional life on the stage, too. She originated the role of Yente the Matchmaker in the 1964 Broadway premier of Fiddler on the Roof, and she earned a Tony Award in 1966 for playing Angela Lansbury's best friend, the drunken actress Vera Charles, in the Broadway musical Mame.

But Maude and Dorothy were what brought Bea to America's attention. Bea was cast as the title character in Maude in 1972; the series was created following a single guest appearance by Bea on All in the Family as Edith Bunker's loudmouth liberal cousin. Tackling serious social and personal issues ("We tackled everything but hemorrhoids," Bea later quipped) with a humorous approach, Maude lasted six seasons and earned Bea her first Emmy Award in 1977.

In 1985, Bea was cast as one-fourth of a comedic quartet in The Golden Girls. Along with co-stars Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty, Bea's character again addressed some difficult issues, this time centered around aging, with witty repartee, spotlighting Bea's trademark timing and deadpan delivery. She stayed with the show for seven seasons, earning her second Emmy Award in 1988.

Bea was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame last year.

Her second marriage, to director Gene Saks, lasted almost 30 years. Together, they adopted two sons — Matthew, an actor, and Daniel, a set designer. Bea leaves them behind, as well as two granddaughters.

I loved Bea Arthur's snarky Dorothy, and — though Maude was not a program permitted in my hyper-conservative parents' home during my growing-up years — still I love her courage in creating such a strong, sassy character for women to admire and aspire to, in TVLand forevermore.

Right on, Bea.

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