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Bea Arthur: 1922-2009

Tina Fey, Normal Lear, and Rue McClanahan remember the actress and comedian

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Tina Fey
”She made TV a little safer for women”
The first time I saw Bea Arthur was in Maude. I had to sneak-watch it, because it was sort of racy and political, and at 7 years old, there is no way I understood it. I really came to appreciate Ms. Arthur and her timing on The Golden Girls, in its syndicated-Lifetime-marathon incarnation. I thought, ”Man, there’s a lot of good jokes in this, and these ladies are really skilled.”

The thing I admire most about her performance as Dorothy Zbornak was her perfect deadpan delivery. (Actually, it reminds me of my own mother — my mom has those deadpan eyes like Bea Arthur. Those shark eyes that can chew you up with one look.) To get a laugh on a reaction shot where you’re not speaking or even moving, that’s a skill I’d like to have. And yet Dorothy had a lot of warmth to her, too. She was, as network executives like to say, the ”emotional center” of that show.

There’s always talk of comedy being a ”boys’ club,” but to me it’s always seemed that television was a place where women are really allowed to shine and be strong and be at the center of things. Lucy got to be realistic and relaxed until Ricky came home, but Maude was abrasive, caustic Maude for the whole half hour.

As a female comedian, whether you’re aware of ”Oh, this person’s on TV and she is eight feet tall with this crazy low voice — that’s unusual,” you are benefiting from it. You could argue that every strong female comedy character, from Murphy Brown to Roseanne to Amy Poehler rapping at nine months pregnant on SNL, is in some way indebted to Maude and to Bea Arthur. Ms. Arthur sandwiched both sides of Three’s CompanyMaude was before, and Golden Girls was after — and made TV a little safer for women.

Rue McClanahan
”Bea taught me to be outrageously courageous…to go out on a limb”
When I first worked with her on Maude and came back to New York — I was still living here — actors descended upon me and said, ”Oooh! Was it scary working with Bea Arthur?” I said, ”Good heavens! Anything but!” We immediately took to each other and just clicked right away. That height — she was 5’10” flat-footed — and that deep voice and that manner she was able to summon up made people think she would be difficult. But she wasn’t — she was anything but. She just demanded as near perfection as possible because that’s what she gave. And she did not suffer fools gladly. But she appreciated real talent. She really did honor it.

Bea taught me to be outrageously courageous, as a co-medienne to go out on a limb, to go farther than I’ve ever dreamed of going. I guess I learned to do that, because [laughs] I think I did that as Blanche. Blanche had to say and do things that Rue found difficult. And it would always be Bea who said [deepens voice to imitate Arthur], ”Oh, say it! It’s funny!” As a friend, she was giving and loving to me. She was a very close, quiet, rather timid person, very gentle, and her emotions were right under the surface. I saw someone say something once that they didn’t mean to be a cutting remark, but it hit her wrong and she immediately burst into tears. That’s not seen very often, but those feelings were right under the surface.

She came from the theater, and the theater tends to be more gritty than television. She understood that kind of humor. She had a one-woman show on Broadway — I’m so glad she got to do that. And she told some pretty raunchy jokes, live on stage. In fact, a couple were just a bit too much for me! [Laughs] But boy, she could tell a dirty joke. Oh my God, she was funny!

Rosie O’Donnell
”She made bawdy brilliant”
She was a very, very influential person in my life and career as an entertainer. There are few women in the ’70s that were carrying shows and treated with the kind of gravitas that she had. It was not commonplace. She was like the funny Gloria Steinem. For women my age, she was the one that we looked to like, God, look, she did it.

She was something unique. She definitely paved the way. She made bawdy brilliant. She told me a story once — Estelle Getty came over to her house for dinner, and it was her birthday. Bea didn’t know it was her birthday, so she went into the freezer and took out a cold steak and handed it to Estelle and said, ”Happy birthday.” But you can just imagine it with that delivery. We were supposed to get lunch a few months ago. We would keep in contact. I loved her. She was a special, special person.

Norman Lear
”There was no doubt this was a television star”
I called her after I’d seen Shoestring Revue, which was an Off Broadway show. The stage was dark. It was like a street scene. It was one lit streetlight, and she came out in the highest of heels and dressed to kill. She leaned against the streetlight and sang a torch song called ”Garbage”; it was about some guy who had treated her like garbage. It’s a big song, and every time she hit the word garbage, there was a laugh attack in the audience. I never forgot that.

I used to do the George Gobel variety show. I brought her out to play sketches. We had become great friends and worked together a number of times, and then came All in the Family. We wanted to do an episode where somebody could really lambaste Archie. And having grown up in my family, I knew that there was nothing like an old relative. So we brought in Maude as Edith’s best friend and cousin, who never wanted her to marry this man. So she had all the anger over the years.

That episode was not quite finished [airing] in New York when I got a call from [CBS programming chief] Fred Silverman saying, ”That woman, she’s got to have a series of her own.” Now, we understood that in the course of a week’s rehearsal. There was no doubt this was a television star.

Mario Lopez
”I worked with her when I was 10 years old”
I worked with her on a show called a.k.a. Pablo when I was 10 years old. Even as a little kid I could recognize how funny she was, and talented. She was so gracious with her time, and she was helping me with my lines, and she was so sweet. Then a couple years later, I ran into her again with The Golden Girls. She remembered me, and she was again so nice and took me out to lunch that whole week and helped me with my lines. The particular episode was called ”Dorothy’s Prized Pupil” [about a student of Dorothy’s who faces immigration problems]. I was like the original Elián González.

Amy Poehler
Maude rhymed with broad for a reason”
I fell in love with her when I was young and watched this strong woman in a pantsuit boss her husband around. Maude rhymed with broad for a reason. From all accounts, Ms. Arthur was a classy broad.

Tributes compiled by Kristen Baldwin, Michael Slezak, Tim Stack, and Adam B. Vary