Beatrice Arthur, an icon of ’70s TV as the star of Maude, and then one of the staples of ’80s TV as one of the leads in The Golden Girls, has died at age 86, according to an Associated Press report. A family spokesman told AP the Emmy and Tony Award winner had cancer, and died peacefully at her home in Los Angeles.
Arthur’s best-known roles came in popular sitcoms that didn’t shy away from the serious issues of the day. On Maude, which aired from 1972-1978, Arthur’s pantsuit-wearing, feminist title character had an abortion, which resulted in a flurry of viewer protests. Arthur scored five Emmy nominations and one win for the role. The ribald, hilarious Golden Girls — which over seven seasons tackled hot-button issues such as menopause, homophobia, suicide, and racism — found Arthur playing gruff, wisecrack-spewing divorcée Dorothy Zbornak, who shared a Miami home with her mother and two loopy friends. Arthur picked up four more Emmy nods and one win as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for the role.
In a 2005 interview with EW, Arthur recalled she “flipped” when she first read the script for The Golden Girls‘ pilot episode. “After all of the crap I’d been sent, here was something so bright and adult and fabulously funny,” she said.
Arthur’s long-time friend Billy Goldenberg, who co-created 2002’s Bea Arthur on Broadway, tells EW.com that the actress was “never afraid to say anything that she believed in. The rest of us always took a moment before we said anything, maybe edited it. But she never did. And that was rather odd, because she was a very shy, private person.” Goldenberg says that while Arthur would often wonder why she inspired such widespread and passionate fandom, he surmised it was the way the actress championed underdogs, “people who felt like second-class citizens,” in both her on-screen and off-screen life.
After exiting Golden Girls in 1992, Arthur worked sparingly. Since 2000, she made guest-starring appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Futurama. She scored yet another Emmy nomination as Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for a role as a loopy babysitter on Malcolm in the Middle.
Earlier in her career, Arthur tasted success on Broadway and on the big screen, even winning a Tony Award for her roles as Vera Charles, formidable pal of Angela Lansbury’s title character in Mame. She would go on to play the same role in the musical’s big-screen adaptation, though in that instance opposite Lucille Ball.
EW.com will be catching up with more of Arthur’s friends and colleagues as the weekend goes on. Please keep checking back for further updates:
Betty White, who so memorably played Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls opposite Arthur, gave this statement to Entertainment Tonight: “I knew it would hurt, I just didn’t know it would hurt this much. I’m so happy that she received her Lifetime Achievement Award while she was still with us, so she could appreciate that. She was such a big part of my life.”
Angela Lansbury, who co-starred with Arthur in Mame on Broadway, released this statement: “Bea Arthur and I first met when we did ‘Mame’ together in 1965. She became and has remained ‘My Bosom Buddy’ ever since. I am deeply saddened by her passing, but also relieved that she is released from the pain. I spoke to Matt, her son, yesterday and I was aware that her time was imminent. She was a rare and unique performer and a dear, dear friend.”
Norman Lear, creator of Maude and All in the Family, and a longtime friend, tells EW: “I [first met] her after I’d seen [her in] an off-Broadway show called Three to Get Ready. The stage was dark, and she came out in the highest of heels and dressed to kill. She leaned against a street light 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. We became great friends and worked together a number of times, and then came [her episode on] All in the Family [as Maude]. That episode was still playing in New York when I got a call from [CBS exec] Fred Silverman saying ‘That woman has got to have a series of her own.’ There was no doubt this was a television star. Bea was the last one to take anything like that for granted. She never saw herself that way. But those of us working with her knew we were working with a golden comedic touch.”
Susan Harris, creator of The Golden Girls, and writer of the famous abortion episode of Maude, tells EW: “Bea could do anything. Bea was possibly the easiest person to write for. You never had to give Bea any direction. She always came in very well prepared, but she gave you so much more than what you wrote. Just her looks would get laughs. When I wrote the Golden Girls [pilot] script, in describing the character of Dorothy, I said ‘a Bea Arthur type,’ never imagining for a minute that Bea was available or would do it. We were fortunate enough to get her. That voice certainly was a signature. She was a commanding presence. But if she hadn’t had that talent, if she hadn’t had that timing, if she hadn’t had the depth that she had as an actor, her height and her voice would have been meaningless. She was a force. I really can’t imagine anyone taking her place. I don’t intend to write another show, but if I wrote [another] ‘Bea Arthur type,’ I think we’d be very hard pressed to find one.”
Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development, who worked with Arthur when he was a writer-producer for The Golden Girls, tells EW: “I really loved her — and gained so much from working with her. Shewas deeply supportive of me at the start of my career. Her warmthwasn’t superficial — it was genuine and bespoke true compassion. And it was this same inner sweetness that made her comedy so real andtouching, and made her such an inspiration.”
— Michael Slezak, with additional reporting by Dan Snierson and Adam B. Vary
More on Bea Arthur:
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Ken Tucker pays tribute to ‘Bea Arthur: A magnificent Maude, a Golden Girl, a mighty woman’
EW toasts ”The Golden Girls”’ 20th anniversary: Reminiscing with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White
Roundtable Q&A with TV’s Golden Girls