Bea Arthur dead at 86

Apr 25, 2009 by Ian Evans

Bea Arthur, who kept us laughing with Maude and The Golden Girls has died of cancer at the age of 86.

Born Bernice Frankel in 1922, Bea first entertained audiences on the New York stage. After years of smaller roles on stage and TV, she gained much critical acclaim for her performance as Lucy Brown in the 1955 production of The Threepenny Opera. In 1964, she was cast by Harold Prince as Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof and in 1966 had a huge success playing Vera Charles opposite Angela Lansbury in the musical Mame, a role that earned her a Tony Award for best supporting actress.

After playing Edith Bunker’s liberal cousin, Maude Finley, on the groundbreaking sitcom All in the Family, CBS executives thought Bea’s character was ripe for a spin-off and Maude debuted in 1972. Maude was a standard bearer for the growing feminist movement and the sitcom tackled serious topics like alcoholism and abortion. She won an Emmy Award for the role in 1977 and quit the show in 1978.

Her next sitcom, 1983’s Amanda’s, lasted nine episodes, but two years later she struck comedy gold with The Golden Girls. The sitcom focused on three retirees, played by Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan, and the mother of Arthur’s character, Estelle Getty, as they lived their lives in Miami. Despite the ages of the stars, the series crossed generational lines and was a big hit.

Arthur, who was married to Broadway actor and future Tony-winning director Gene Saks from 1950 to 1978, is survived by two sons, Matthew and Daniel.