Bea Arthur’s death this past Saturday marks the passing of one of television’s distinctive voices. Her portrayal of Edith Bunker’s outspoken cousin on All In the Family led to a spin-off of her own with Maude and her Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls stands out even among the three other wonderful characters on the series.
Beginning her career on the stage, she starred in Broadway productions of Fiddler on the Roof and most famously in Mame, a role she reprised for the 1974 film version with Lucille Ball. Her place in television history was assured during her guest starring episodes on All in the Family. Maude was a liberal and a feminist and the perfect counterpart to blustery Archie Bunker. Her apearance on the series was so striking that upon first seeing her on All in the Family, the network realized that Arthur had created a character with a life of her own and one who warranted her own series.
Maude was another of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking shows and it made television history with Maude’s decision to have an abortion after becoming unexpectadly pregnant while in her 40s. Winning an Emmy for her portrayal of Maude, Arthur was still on the cusp of what would become, for many, her most recognizable role. What’s more, her character on The Golden Girls was said to be a ‘Bea Arthur type’ – no better casting could have been made.
In 1985, Brandon Tartikoff, then-president of NBC, pitched a series about a group of older women living in Miami and dealing with friendships,family and their love lives. The Golden Girls was born and the network had an instant hit in the antics of Dorothy, Sophia, Rose, and Blanche. Running for seven seasons, Arthur, Betty White, Rue McLanahan, and Estelle Getty created an unorthodox family by playing with conventions of age and gender and turning them on their ear.
In fact, it’s Arthur’s interpretation of a divorced substitute teacher living with her mother and two friends in Miami that marks one of the all-time great female characters on television. Dorothy was the outspoken, quick-witted counterpart to sweet, naïve Rose and egotistical, man crazy Blanche. She was never at a loss for words and could deliver a dig like no other. Her sarcasm and her deadpan delivery were impeccable. It’s no wonder that Arthur really hit her stride with the character.
On The Golden Girls Arthur’s Dorothy could be everything from highly confident to desperate; mothering and nurturing to acerbic and stinging; yet throughout she was always funny and charming. Jokes were frequently made about her appearance – her height and deep voice were often played for laughs – but the viewer never felt like Dorothy couldn’t take it, or even that Dorothy ever took it all that seriously. There is no doubt that Arthur was fearless in her portrayal of Dorothy. Rue McLanahan has said as much in response to Arthur’s passing: “Thirty-seven years ago she showed me how to be very brave in playing comedy. I’ll miss that courage and I’ll miss that voice.” McLanahan, who starred in both Maude and The Golden Girls with Arthur, should know just how bold Arthur could be.
The surviving members of The Golden Girls (Estelle Getty died last year after a long battle with dementia) had participated in commentaries and bonus features on the DVD releases of the series and their memories of their time together clearly shows just how much fun they had with the material. Arthur even says “I sometimes wake in the middle of the night and think of a line and I start laughing and can’t stop. There were just so many goodies.” As she continues to reminisce about the final season of the show, she becomes emotional and it is immediately apparent just how important that time was in her life.
Arthur could deliver a one-liner like no one else and her unique presence made her memorable in a business dominated by a very different kind of star. Television afforded her a place to really shine in creating charcaters that went beyond the quick laugh or easy joke. Both Maude and The Golden Girls effortlessly cement Arthur’s place in television history. While it’s easy to remember classic lines from these series and laugh, it’s just as easy to remember Bea Arthur as a daring force to be reckoned with time and again.