Beatrice Arthur, 'Golden Girls' star, dies at 86

Beaarthur_lBeatrice 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 divorcĂ©e 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:
Rue McClanahan remembers Bea Arthur
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

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Comments (285 total) Add your comment
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  • Steven

    RIP Bea. I love you! I cried really badly when I first heard this.

  • TJ

    She was a great actress and will be sorely missed.

  • Sarah A

    I really, really hope Entertainment Weekly plays tribute to this wonderful actress and comedian in their next issue. She was such an amazing actress to watch onscreen, and Golden Girls will always hold a special place in my heart. R.I.P Bea <3 You will most definitely be missed.

  • Adam

    Sad sad news. I’m too young to remember The Golden Girls, but I do remember her memorable appearance on Malcolm in the Middle. Wasn’t she in Grandma’s Boy too?

    http://tvdonewright.com/2009/04/25/ratings-report-fox-fails-on-friday-nights/

  • TWA2

    I’m crushed. Really. I adored her as a performer and Dorothy is one of my favorite characters ever. A bright light has dimmed.

  • Karrah

    First Estelle Getty, now Bea. I’m a huge Golden Girls fan. She will be missed.

  • viewit

    A sad day for comedy! We’ll miss you Bea!

  • tlctaurus

    I am so sad to hear this. I have loved Bea Arthur since I was old enough to understand her humor. Sad Sad Day. The world became a little less funny today. She was an amazing actress and humanitarian, and will truly be missed by all.

  • Mark

    Very sad, my favorite of the Golden Girls. Strange coincidence (or cosmic foreshadowing?), while channel surfing I happened upon the pilot episode of Golden Girls and the scene where Dorothy is talking to Rose contemplating her own mortality and the realization that she is growing old. :(

  • Casey alfaro

    I got to see them both together at the 1996 Creative Arts Emmy awards. They were presenters and I was an usher. Betty White was there also that night representing the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I looked forward to the Golden Girls every Saturday night at 9pm. They left some of the funniest moments on that show that are still hilarious today.

  • Stacie

    I haven’t watched a Golden Girls episode in years, and last night there was nothing on TV and I came across The Golden Girls on the Hallmark Channel at 1 or 2 am in the morning. Very eery. My condolences go out to Bea’s family and friends.

  • Matt

    One of the all-time great comedians and television actresses. She will be greatly missed.

  • Stacie

    I haven’t watched a Golden Girls episode in years, and last night there was nothing on TV and I came across The Golden Girls on the Hallmark Channel at 1 or 2 am in the morning and I watched like 3 episodes in a row. Very eery. My condolences go out to Bea’s family and friends.

    http://bsfactor.podbean.com

  • Jack Siebert

    OMG, I was chatting on the phone with a neighbor when I saw the news online. Sad is not strong enough to describe how I feel – more like an empty feeling as the Golden Girls have become a part of my life. Whenever I need to laugh, I turn on the show (which we now get for about 4 hours a day) or pop in a DVD and enjoy their wonderful, zany and extremely poignant humor. Thank you for all of this – you and Estelle are missed very much!

  • Chris G

    This sucks, first Estelle now Bea, which is a complete shock. and now one of my favorite Doroty quotes: “You know Rose, until I met you I didn’t know that people actually talk back to their Rice Krispies.”

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