ARTHUR, BEATRICE

U.S. Actor

Bea Arthur stands five-foot-nine-and-a-half inches tall in her stocking feet, and has a voice that one reviewer characterized as "deep as a pothole." Her formidable stature and booming vocal register made her an unlikely leading lady in an industry driven by a narrow regime of feminine beauty. But as character traits for Maude Finley, they proved to be the perfect foil for the sexist bravado of Archie Bunker in Norman Lear's 1970s sitcom, All In the Family, in which Arthur first appeared in the role. The spin-off series, Maude was created for her virtually overnight. As opinionated and caustic in her own way as Archie, Maude Finley was instead, a crusader for women's liberation, the woman in charge. And in the nascent gender consciousness of the 1970s, the Women's Movement's fictional spokeswoman had to be big and booming.

Television viewers' love affair with the character Arthur created in Maude has resulted in a struggle with the actors' nemesis--typecasting. She was a recognized actress on Broadway before making the move to television, appearing in Woody Allen's The Floating Lightbulb, Fiddler on the Roof, The Threepenny Opera, and Mame, for which she won a Tony Award, but Arthur is nevertheless most remembered as the bombastic caricature of a liberated woman on the small screen. Upon leaving Maude in 1978, Arthur took a four year hiatus before accepting another television series in hopes the Finley character would fade in the public mind. When she reappeared on the short-lived Amanda's in 1983, playing the owner of a seaside hotel, it was as a physically thinner person. Yet despite the actress' attempt at transformation, audiences and reviewers alike found it hard to shake their favorite character. "Bea has shed so many pounds she is scarcely recognizable as the imposing, flotilla-like Maude," wrote one reviewer. Arthur responded to the evocation of her prior character, "... what can you do? I'm still five feet nine and my voice is still deep. But I'm not going to cut off my legs or change my voice." Arthur's typecasting continued on the hit series, Golden Girls, first aired in 1985. Playing alongside well-established actresses, Rue McClanahan, Betty White, and Estelle Getty, only Arthur seemed rooted in a past performance. Her character, Dorothy Zbornak, was a continuation of the Maude character--loud, worldly, flippant--a Maude approaching old age.

Whether as Maude, breaking television's mold of female beauty, or as Dorothy, challenging the omnipotent image of youth, Arthur's roles on the two hit series were instrumental in broadening television representation. She has been recognized for her work in television with two Emmys, for Maude and Golden Girls, and has five times been nominated for an American Comedy Award's "Lifetime Achievement Award."

-Lisa A. Lewis

 


Beatrice Arthur

BEATRICE ARTHUR. (Bernice Frankel). Born in New York City, 13 May 1926. Attended Blackstone (junior) College, Blackstone, Virginia; Franklin Institute of Science and Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, degree in medical technology; studied acting with Erwin Piscator at the Dramatic Workshop, New School for Social Research, New York. Married the actor and theater director, Gene Saks, 1950 (divorced); children: Matthew and Daniel. Began career in theater and nightclub performance, New York City, 1947, and thereafter appeared frequently in summer stock, 1951-53; on the New York stage, 1947-66; guest appearance as Maude Findlay in All in the Family, September, 1971; starring role in the series Maude, 1972-78; co-star, The Golden Girls, 1985-92. Recipient: Tony Award, Best Supporting Actress, Mame, 1966; Emmy Award, Best Actress in a Comedy Series, Maude, 1977; Emmy Award, Best Actress in a Comedy Series, The Golden Girls, 1988.

TELEVISION SERIES

1971 All in the Family
1972-78 Maude
1985-92 The Golden Girls

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1980 The Beatrice Arthur Special
1986 Walt Disney World's 15th Birthday Celebration (host)
1987 All Star Gala at Ford's Theater (host)

STAGE

Lysistrata, 1947; The Dog Beneath the Skin, 1947; Yerma, 1947; No Exit, 1948; The Taming of the Shrew, 1948; Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1948; The Owl and the Pussycat, 1948; Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, 1949; The Creditors, 1949; Yes Is For a Very Young Man, 1949; Heartbreak House, 1949; Personal Appearance, Candle Light, Love or Money, The Voice of the Turtle (summer stock), 1951; The New Moon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (summer stock), 1953; The Threepenny Opera, 1954; Shoestring Revue, 1955; Seventh Heaven, 1955; What's the Rush (touring), 1955; Mistress of the Inn (stock), 1956; Nature's Way, 1957; Ulysses in Nighttown, 1958; Fiddler on the Roof, 1964; Mame, 1966.

FURTHER READING

"Bea Arthur's Having a Ball at the Opera." Chicago Tribune, 21 March 1994.

Rose, Linda. "Actresses' Roles Continue to Evolve." Daily Variety (Los Angeles), 6 June 1996.

See also All in the Family; Golden Girls; Lear, Norman; Maude