As I’m sure you’ve all heard, Bea Arthur died over the weekend. She was 86.
As far as I’m concerned, Bea Arthur was one of the most successful actresses of her generation; not only because of the incredible characters she came to portray so memorably, but because she proved herself more worthy than what was likely destined to be a career as a character actress. She wasn’t conventionally pretty, she towered over most of her male co-stars, and she often had the deepest voice of all the performers in any given scene. Yet she had presence, she had a singular style and approach, and she had miles of talent. Those were the things that made her a star of the stage and (small) screen.
Read some of the obituaries of Bea (or just IMDB her). She had a remarkable career. She was in the original cast of two of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time (Fiddler on the Roof and Mame). She was a treasured part of Norman Lear’s All in the Family, the first sitcom that truly made America nervous. All in the Family begat Maude, in which Bea Arthur played a forward-thinking, open-minded, empowered woman years before even Mary Tyler Moore appeared on the airwaves. She’s perhaps best known to people my age for playing Dorothy on The Golden Girls, the now classic sitcom that frankly depicted the professional and personal lives of four single women a whole decade before Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolos touched down on HBO. Bea Arthur, as much as the characters she played, was a trailblazer. She made television history as much as she is now a part of it.
I saw her one-woman show on Broadway years ago. It wasn’t a great show; sort of a glorified cabaret act, or an Inside the Actor’s Studio with a pianist instead of James Lipton. Still, it was cool to see her in person, especially since I remember watching The Golden Girls back when I was around 10 years old. Most of it went over my head at the time, but I remember enjoying it. In fact, when we would go to Disney World on vacation, I insisted on doing the Backstage Studio Tour at MGM Studios because they showed you the facade of the girls’ house. Yes, I was a peculiar child. But a happy one.
Since you can find The Golden Girls on reruns all the time, and since both that show and Maude are now on DVD, I’ve included a clip below of Bea doing what she was first known for: singing and dancing. She’s not necessarily exceptional at either, but it’s clear that she’s having a freakin’ ball while she’s doing it. And that, perhaps as much as anything else in her body of work, is to be admired.