I was very sad to hear yesterday that Bea Arthur died here in Los Angeles. I knew the actress was 86 years old and wasn't going to live forever, but it still seems unreal that she's gone. She was such a strong presence on TV for so many years she seemed indomitable. My wife and I saw Arthur's one-woman show a few years ago and despite her advancing years, she still had it.
I grew up watching "Maude," the first of Bea Arthur's two ground-breaking sitcoms.The pilot for "Maude" was the 1972 season finale of "All in the Family." Bea had already appeared in an earlier episode of that show as Edith Bunker's ultra-liberal cousin Maude. With Edith's subservience to her husband and Mike Stivic's hysteria over Archie's every move, it was a relief to see someone who could stare Archie down and give him hell. The twist was that Maude, the polar opposite of Archie Bunker, was just as trapped by her extreme attitudes as Archie was. Norman Lear deserves a lot of credit for skewering liberals and conservatives with equal gusto. The exchanges between Archie and Maude were some of the funniest moments on 1970s TV. I remember on Arthur's first "All in the Family" appearance, Archie took delight in dissing Maude's hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt. After one particularly long anti-Roosevelt diatribe, Maude slowly turned toward Archie, paused, and said in that inimitable voice of hers, "You're fat." I still laugh when I think of Bea Arthur's delivery of that one line.
Can you think of any actress who had better comic timing? Arthur could take a so-so line and make it as memorable as Lucy Ricardo's "Vitameatavegamin" routine. I attended a taping of "The Golden Girls" when I first moved to Los Angeles and in one scene Estelle Getty kept messing up a line so they had to do it over and over again. Every time Bea Arthur repeated her line I burst into laughter as if I was hearing it for the first time. Who needed laugh tracks with that dame?
I once wrote to Bea Arthur during her "Maude" days and received this letter in return. Nothing very personal, but today I still marvel that she wrote back at all, especially to some snot-nosed kid in Chicago. Does anyone answer their own fan mail today? Maude Findlay was ostensibly one of TV's first feminists but you had to wonder. In retrospect it seems to me that her husband Walter (played by Bill Macy) was a patriarchal slavemaster of the worst kind. His constant condescension of Maude, her daughter, and her grandson would be hard to stomach today. Maude often told Walter to go to hell ("God will get you for that, Walter!") but when she was getting a little too uppity Walter's trademark bark of "Maude! SIT!" would do the trick every time. Oy. Still, the show broke even more taboos than "All in the Family" and was taken off the air by more stations in protest. It was only a few months after Roe v. Wade when Maude suddenly found out she was pregnant on the show (Bea Arthur was 49 at the time!) and became the first (and last?) TV sitcom character to have an abortion. Think of how daring that was back then. Can you imagine Laurie Partridge, Billie Joe Bradley, or Mary Richards even saying the word abortion? The show also dealt with racism, therapy, menopause, alcoholism, homosexuality, plastic surgery, swinging, the legalization of marijuana, and other topics that would have sent poor Jim and Margaret Anderson of "Father Knows Best" straight to Marcus Welby, M.D. for some emergency care. (On the other hand, I still maintain that Jim and Margaret's 1954 relationship was more equitable than the supposedly enlightened Maude and Walter's.)
I also wrote to Maude's daughter, Adrienne Barbeau, and got this postcard reply: "Dear Danny. Thank you for your letter. I'm sorry I'm so late in answering. I hope you are continuing to enjoy the show--I'll bet you liked the one where the girl came to visit us from the ghetto. Another case of reverse prejudice from Maude! My best, Adrienne Barbeau." I remember receiving that postcard and being touched by the "came to visit US," as if she really were Maude's daughter and were telling an anecdote about her crazy mom. That episode stands out, especially the scene where Maude was trying to convince the ghetto girl Francie that she had black friends there in the suburbs of upstate New York. She tries to pawn off her housekeeper Florida Evans (played by the great Esther Rolle ) as her pal:
Maude: Francie, this is Florida. My dear, dear friend, probably the best friend I have in the whole world.
Florida: I'm the maid.
And then later when they're about to sit down for dinner:
Maude: Francie, I hope you're hungry. We're having fried chicken for dinner.
Francie: Good, I win a buck.
Maude: You win a buck?
Francie: I bet that dumb brother of mine that you'd have fried chicken for me the first thing off.
Maude: Ha ha ha. I love a person with a sense of humor. Excuse me. (Maude turns around and whispers to her daughter) Carol, for Heaven's sake, go into the kitchen and throw out the grits.
Recently I saw a jaw-dropping video from a special Bea Arthur did for CBS in 1980, in between her "Maude" and "Golden Girl" runs. This crazy number was performed by Arthur and Rock Hudson on the Emmy-nominated special and when I saw it I just had one little question: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
In the number, Bea and Rock played a couple of boozing, middle-aged suburbanites who were musing about the happy-go-lucky drug-addled kids of the day. Arthur and Hudson seemed to view all forms of recreational drug use with amusement and mirth. Try getting this number past the network censors today:
Few people will ever come close to Bea Arthur's perfect timing. In addition to her iconic TV roles as Maude Findlay and Dorothy Zbornak, Arthur had an accomplished stage career, appearing in the original "Threepenny Opera" on Broadway, creating the role of Yenta in "Fiddler on the Roof," and winning a Tony Award in 1966 for her role as Vera Charles in "Mame" opposite her friend Angela Lansbury. Decades later the two repeated their famous number on the Tony Awards. Take a look as we say goodbye to another true original: