Thursday, October 1, 2009

Meant to Bea

In April of 2009, the world lost one of its unique talents. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever being quite exactly like Bea Arthur. Known for her considerable height, her well-projected baritone voice and her comic “takes” which could elicit gales of laughter from an audience without the need for words, she was a TV treasure, not to mention a terrific stage actress.

Ms. Arthur initially toiled away for years in plays and musicals, both on and off-Broadway, all the while balancing life as a wife and mother. She gained a degree of success as Lucy Brown in "Threepenny Opera", but it was her supporting role as Yenta in "Fiddler on the Roof" which got people to really start noticing her. When she won a Tony award for playing Vera Charles in "Mame," her reputation as a scene-owning comedienne was cemented, at least as the theatre world was concerned.

Then in 1971, she played Edith Bunker’s boisterous, liberated and domineering cousin Maude Findlay on an episode of the highly popular sitcom All in the Family. This led to her own series, Maude, which was a big success in its own right, earning the actress a 1977 Emmy Award. Maude is legendary for having tackled previously (and, in some cases, still) touchy subjects such as feminism, racism, abortion, alcoholism, plastic surgery and more. Arthur, who never let the promise of money keep her in a place in which she felt as if she were merely marking time, declined to continue the series in 1978, though it was still popular.

While Maude was still in production, she found time to appear in the big screen debacle Mame, an adaptation of the hit musical, which had starred Angela Lansbury on stage, but was done on film by Lucille Ball in an almost career-killing move. Arthur’s husband Gene Saks directed it, but Lucy held the reins and, even though she had requested Arthur to reprise her role, she also undercut it by draining a lot of the humor out of it and tweaking the music to suit her own frog-like voice. If nothing else (and trust me, there’s little else!), the movie served to capture Arthur’s rendition of “The Man in the Moon” on film along with a couple of her deadpan lines. Bea’s interaction with her dresser following the “Moon” number is a comic highlight.

Her resume between that time and 1985 includes some real dillies, including a role as the singing cantina-tender in the infamous The Star Wars Holiday Special and even her own TV special that featured such unlikely guests as Melba Moore and Rock Hudson. She also did a cameo in Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I.

In 1985, she was given a script that called for a “Bea Arthur type” and somehow she was deemed right for the part! This was, of course, the pilot for The Golden Girls and, here, she was granted one of her all-time best parts and given recognition in a series that simply refuses to die. It had an almost comically-long run on Lifetime, playing practically all day, every day and now airs on both WE (Women’s Entertainment) and The Hallmark Channel in lengthy blocks. Despite having been cancelled in 1992 (when, again, Arthur chose to leave, rather than milk a thing dry, though, for my money, it was mostly milked by around 1990 and I am a major fan of the show!), the series gains new fans every day, some of who weren’t even born when it first aired.

Arthur had already perfected the booming exclamations, the slow burn stares and the claw-handed reactions to other characters as Maude. However, The Golden Girls gave her the opportunity to round off some of the harder edges while playing Dorothy and also to explore some more heartfelt, vulnerable and, at times, kooky aspects of her persona that weren’t mined as deeply in the prior series. She picked up a second Emmy in 1988 for her work on the show. It’s interesting, too, to note the arc that Arthur, as Dorothy, undergoes in Girls with the initial episodes being very Maude-like and the later ones offering a far more tender (and zany) rendition along with the requisite toughness.

Though Ms. Arthur still made a fair amount of appearances after the end of The Golden Girls, she cut back significantly on her acting (the grind of the series having worn her out by her own admission.) When she did appear on TV, it was usually well regarded such as in her Emmy-nominated guest role on Malcolm in the Middle as an old babysitter.

One of her chief projects in the wake of Girls was a one-woman stage show, recounting her long career and performing various songs that she had either previously performed or merely enjoyed. She took it on the road in 2001 and 2002, eventually moving it to Broadway where she was nominated for a Tony (losing to Elaine Stritch, who was performing a similar style of show.)

It was during the pre-Broadway tour of this show (at the time called “And Then There’s Bea…” and later changed to “An Evening with Bea Arthur,” as well as other titles) that I was fortunate enough to meet Ms. Arthur in person. Ill with a cold and wearing a cast on one foot from having fallen into the orchestra pit Minneapolis, she nonetheless put on a captivating program and spent a friendly and unforgettable ten minutes or so with me and two of my friends afterwards. I learned during this encounter that it’s true that Ms. Arthur was, in person, very little like her screen personas. She was unassuming, demure, reticent, a little shy, really, but amiable. She was also humble, insisting that credit go to her accompanist Billy Goldenberg, who was a veteran composer in his own right and reacting with much surprise at the many compliments thrown her way. At that stage in the production, she had not yet added the songs “The Man in the Moon” or “What’ll I Do?” but she vowed to add them in after I had mentioned missing them.

Bea Arthur brought thousands of laughs (and a few tears as well) to millions of people during her career and the bulk of them came from enacting a tough as nails, foghorn loud type of character, but when the stage and set lights were out, she was really just a rather subdued, down to Earth type of gal, though still just as no-nonsense as the big characters she played. I’ve been grateful to have her work available to me as a pick-me-up on days that are less than wonderful and she never fails to leave me smiling.


Post a Comment