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Bea Arthur, star of 'Golden Girl' and 'Maude,' Arthur dies at 86

LOS ANGELES — Beatrice Arthur, the tall, deep-voiced actor whose razor-sharp delivery of comedy lines made her a TV star in the hit shows Maude and The Golden Girls, died Saturday at her Los Angeles home of cancer.

Ms. Arthur, 86, was a success on Broadway long before TV audiences got to know her. In 1966, she won a Tony for her performance as Angela Lansbury's sharp-tongued sidekick in the original production of Mame.

She had little experience in either film or TV when Norman Lear spotted her in an off-Broadway show and brought her to Hollywood in 1971 for a guest role on CBS's All in the Family. She played Edith Bunker's loud-mouthed cousin, Maude, who tangled with Edith's equally loud-mouthed husband, Archie Bunker, from opposite sides of the political fence.

Within a year, Ms. Arthur had her own show, Maude, which ran for six years on CBS.

Ms. Arthur said she was lucky to be discovered by TV after a long stage career. "I was already 50 years old. I had done so much off-Broadway, on Broadway, but they said, 'Who is that girl?' " she said in 2008.

Maude came at the onset of the feminist movement and addressed serious issues, including infidelity, death, depression and abortion, but there were always laughs. Maude's most famous line, delivered often and with withering drollery to her husband, was: "God will get you for that, Walter."

Playing Maude earned Ms. Arthur five Emmy nominations and a statuette in 1977. But despite the show's enormous success, Ms. Arthur did not enjoy being the public face of feminism, a role she said was thrust upon her. "It put a lot of unnecessary pressure on me," she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001.

As Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls, Ms. Arthur was integral to the success of the series, which followed the lives of three older women sharing a household in Miami with Dorothy's widowed mother, Sophia (Estelle Getty). Much of what made the show work was the snappy mother-daughter dialogue, with Ms. Arthur what executive producer Paul Witt called the "isle of sanity who could look at the other three characters from the audience's perspective."

The series co-starred Betty White as the naive Rose and Rue McClanahan as the saucy Blanche. All won Emmys for their portrayals; Ms. Arthur's came in 1988.

Much quieter by nature than her famous characters, Ms. Arthur often said that what she and they had in common was: "All three of us are 5-foot-9 1/2 in our stocking feet and we all have deep voices." And all, she said, tended to be "bubble-prickers."

Ms. Arthur was born Bernice Frankel in New York City in 1922. At 12 she had grown to full height. Although she pined to be a June Allyson type — small and blond and cute — she made the most of her stature and a voice so deep that on the telephone she was often mistaken for a man.

She studied in New York with influential German director Erwin Piscator and joined the Actors Studio, where she met her future husband, Gene Saks, who later directed Broadway shows and movies.

In 1954, she got the role of Lucy Brown in the U.S. premiere of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera, which opened off-Broadway starring Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya. Ms. Arthur adored Lenya and often referred to the experience as the highlight of her life, the time that she realized "I was good, damn good."

Around that time, working in TV on Caesar's Hour with Sid Caesar, she said she learned to be "outrageous" by doing "under fives" — under five lines — in sketches.

Between series, Ms. Arthur remained active in films and theater. In recent years, she made guest appearances on TV shows including Curb Your Enthusiasm and Malcolm in the Middle.

Information from the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

Her TV hits

All in the Family: Her breakthrough TV role was Edith Bunker's loudly outspoken, liberal cousin, Maude Finley. She proved a perfect foil for blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor). Their blistering exchanges were so entertaining that producer Norman Lear fashioned her own series.

Maude (1972-1978): The comedy series often had a serious base. Husband Walter (Bill Macy) became an alcoholic, and she underwent an abortion, which drew a torrent of viewer protests. Maude became a standard bearer for the growing feminist movement in America.

Golden Girls (1985-1992): The groundbreaking comedy about three retirees living together in Miami, along with the mother of Beatrice Arthur's character, found success in a TV market skewed toward a younger audience. As Dorothy Zbornak, Ms. Arthur seemed as caustic and domineering as Maude. "Look — I'm 5-feet-9, I have a deep voice and I have a way with a line," she told an interviewer. "What can I do about it? I can't stay home waiting for something different. I think it's a total waste of energy worrying about typecasting."

Bea Arthur, star of 'Golden Girl' and 'Maude,' Arthur dies at 86 04/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 25, 2009 10:32pm]
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