I was not only saddened to hear the news of Bea Arthur's passing today. But I was really surprised. I didn't know she was ill. But I have to think she went out on her own terms (as much as anyone can I guess) in that she always seemed to be this big star with an even bigger private life. I'm glad I didn't know she was ill. But I am sad to see her go.
Many of my friends, and I would imagine most people these days, associate Arthur with The Golden Girls. The show that joined the ranks of perplexing ratings watchers as actors, seemingly past their prime, were commanding huge ratings. The Golden Girls debuted on CBS at a time when Murder She Wrote was big in the Neilson's, but also battled shows like Family Ties, Cheers, Whose the Boss? and later challenged, and beat, shows like Moonlighting and The Wonder Years.
For me, however, Bea Arthur will forever be Maude Findlay.
Maude, the 1972-1978 series, was another in the Normal Lear spinoff's of his highly successful half hour show All In The Family. In fact, Maude may have been the first spinoff. Arthur as Maude was the perfect foil for Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker. Where Archie was a conservative bigot, Maude was a liberal bra burner and when the two appeared on the small screen together, it made the already controversial, but amazingly well written and enjoyable All In The Family true Must See TV.
I'm not exactly sure why that show caught on with me so much. Maybe it was Arthur's bigger than anyone persona; with her deep voice and steadfast convictions. Or maybe it was the talk of politics without apology that I would later find myself so enthralled with.
Maude Findlay was a the time divorced, four time married woman who couldn't understand a world where everyone wasn't treated equally. And anyone who crossed her path with a differing opinion was the recipient of her wrath.
A situation comedy in name only, Maude tackled a variety of issues that were difficult to discuss around the family dinner table, but somehowseeing them on television made them a little more accessible. Whether it be issues of abortion, pre-marital sex, or even homosexuality, Maude took the side of tolerance and even acceptance that seems so out of bounds some 35+ years later.
An interesting side note is that Maude's best friend on that show was a character named Vivian Harmon played by future Golden Girl Rue McClanahan. Vivian was a ditzy sidekick to the always strong and self assured Maude. The two really did click on camera and it was great to see them reunited some time later.
Another interesting note is that during this same time, about 1973-1977, Betty White, another future Golden Girl, was on The Mary Tyler Moore show as Sue Anne Nivens. White played a character whose tv show was something along the precursor to what Martha Stewart would later make popular. However, Nivens was a sex vixen who was always after Lou Grant (Ed Answer).
My understanding is that producers were so solidified in their thinking of both McClanahan and White, that when they were originally pitched the idea for The Golden Girls, they wanted both to basically replay the characters for which they were, at the time, most famous. Supposedly it was McClanahan and White who suggested the switch which now is recognized as pure genius.
While known to millions for her television performances, Bea Arthur was also quite accomplished on stage. She was the original Yenta in Broadway's original cast of Fiddler on the Roof, as well as Vera Charles in 1966's Mame, a role she would later recreate in the feature film version in 1974.
There are a ton of wonderful video's posted of Bea on YouTube and other places. One of the great things I loved about her was her apparent willingness to do just about anything. Sometimes the result may not have been the most flattering, but almost always funny, and certainly always worth watching.
Below is just one of the many, many, many bits I still enjoy. Goodbye Bea Arthur, you will be terribly missed: