Sunday, April 26, 2009

Beatrice Arthur


Arthur spent thirty years on stage before achieving unlikely television stardom at age 50. She had been glimpsed, and remembered onstage by All in the Family creator Norman Lear, who created a guest starring role with her in mind. Edith had a cold (or broke her foot, or something, who remembers?) and her cousin Maude moved in to run the Bunker household for a week. The episode pitted the left-wing feminist Maude against the right-wing bigot Archie, and magic was made. After the episode aired, the honchos at CBS suggested that this highly skilled, but highly unknown (at least in Hollywood) actress be given her own show, and Maude was born. A pilot episode was written and shot as an episode of All in the Family, in which the Bunkers travel to upscale Westchester County, New York, to attend the wedding of Cousin Maude's daughter. Jean Stapleton and Carroll O'Connor appeared in only a couple of scenes in the episode, which took place primarily in the home of limousine liberal Maude Findlay. She was acerbic, caustic, sarcastic, and hilarious (this episode introduced Maude's catchphrase, "God'll get you for that"). Her household included her fourth husband Walter, her divorced daughter Carol, and her often absent grandson Phillip.

A few adjustments were made when the show went to series, the biggest of which was the replacement of actress Marcia Rodd, who played Carol in the pilot, with younger, less caustic Adrienne Barbeau. In its early episodes, the show added stage actress Esther Rolle to the cast to play the maid Florida. Maude was an immediate hit, and its first season set the stage for the controversial subject matter which would become its legacy. The script for the two-part abortion story was read into the congressional record, even as the nation was deeply divided on the issue (Roe vs. Wade was decided a year after Maude's abortion episode aired). While the show tackled social issues such as alcoholism, racism, menopause and the like, it provided a showcase for Arthur's dynamic comic timing. After repeated nominations, she won her first Emmy for the show in 1977; that year's season included an unusual episode in which Arthur was the only performer to appear (we witnessed Maude's session with a psychiatrist, who remained off-camera and mute for the full half-hour). It was the sitcom version of a One Man Show; Arthur herself called it a "tour de force." The series suffered diminished ratings in its later years, and Arthur herself decided the show should not continue beyond its 77-78 season.

I was in the audience during a taping of Maude once, and was impressed that the ensemble treated the show as a theatrical production, running the entire episode without stops or retakes. The stage chops of Arthur and her costars were on clear display.

After Maude, Arthur briefly returned to Broadway in the Woody Allen flop, The Floating Lightbulb; the experience did not diminish her love of performing onstage. In her early years, she had been a regular presence on New York stages, and made a splash in the 1954 off-Broadway production of Threepenny Opera starring German star Lotte Lenya, a production which boasted a cast which would soon achieve major recognition: Charlotte Rae, Jo Sullivan (Mrs. Frank Loesser), John Astin, and Paul Dooley.

In the early 60s, Arthur created the role of Yente the Matchmaker in the long running smash Fiddler on the Roof. By then she had married and divorced her first husband, and married director Gene Saks, a union which would last 28 years. The 1966 production of Mame was directed by Saks, who was in the unenviable position of telling his wife that she did not get the leading role in his play. She did, however, snag the supporting role of drunken stage actress Vera Charles, which provided Arthur with a Tony Award. Arthur recreated the role in the disastrous film version starring Lucille Ball in 1974 (I wrote about that trainwreck here).

After her major success with Maude in the 1970s, Arthur returned to series television briefly in 1983, headlining the sitcom Amanda's, the adaptation of the British series Fawlty Towers. What worked for John Clease did not for Bea Arthur, and the show lasted only 13 weeks. Two years later, she debuted in her second hit series, The Golden Girls. Though the role of Dorothy was written specifically for Arthur, she was reluctant to commit to another series. Her friend and Maude cohort Rue McClanahan, who was to costar in the new series, was enlisted to convince Arthur that the show had something new to say about middle-aged women. The pilot episode (which included a gay houseboy who did not return when the show went to series) provided plenty of evidence that the four feisty actresses could form a dynamic ensemble.

Arthur won her second Emmy Award for The Golden Girls (she garnered additional nominations in 1978, for a guest appearance on Laugh-In, and in 2000, for a guest shot on Malcolm in the Middle). She has continued to maintain a presence on television, appearing as Larry David's mother on Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as providing a notorious (but riotous) performance in 2005, on a Comedy Central roast of Pamela Anderson (in her trademark deadpan, she read from Anderson's autobiography). She created and toured a one-woman retrospective of her career, which reached Broadway in 2002 and garnered a Tony nomination (she lost the award to Elaine Stritch's one-woman show, which may have been payback for this fun story: while Arthur was always the first choice to play Dorothy on The Golden Girls, she hesitated long enough that auditions were held to cast the role elsewhere. Stritch was called in, and, by her own account, blew the audition by adding some foul-mouthed ad-libs. Can you imagine Elaine Stritch as Dorothy Zbornak? I think I can).

Bea Arthur can be credited for creating four, count 'em FOUR memorable roles: Dorothy Zbornak, Maude Findlay, Vera Charles, and Yente the Matchmaker. Her comic timing was impeccable; I'm sure the phone book would be a scream if she read it aloud. That timing is apparent in the clip below, as is her ability to bring life to an old standard. There is also a nice bit of acting going on here. Bea Arthur once told an interviewer of the three influences in her work: "Sid Caesar taught me the outrageous; Lee Strasberg taught me what I call reality; and Lotte Lenya taught me economy."

All three influences are apparent in this Golden Girls clip, which takes place in a bar to which Dorothy has been dragged against her will:

Beatrice Arthur died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. She was 86.