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An appreciation: Bea Arthur

April 26, 2009 |  6:33 pm

Bea arthur 

“God will get you for that, Walter.’

Nobody could do more with these words than Beatrice Arthur as Maude Findlay on the marital warpath. She could slingshot them in fury or release them in a chilling deadpan, but however she delivered them you could be sure they’d hit their mark with a prizefighter’s pop.
All the tributes that will be lavished on Arthur, who died Saturday at 86, will extol her impeccable comic timing. Her ability to detonate a joke, to momentarily harness a punch line before releasing it at full force, brought her Emmy-winning success in two groundbreaking sitcoms, Norman Lear’s 1970s classic “Maude” and “The Golden Girls,” launched in 1985 and no doubt making somebody crack up in rerun land as you’re reading this.

Television critics can pay appropriate homage to the place of these shows in small-screen history. But I can’t help thinking about the stage origins of those unerring instincts for comedy, the hours upon hours of performing in theaters large and small that taught Arthur better than any videotape what worked and what didn’t. Nor can I keep myself from mourning a death that in some respects marks the passing of an entertainment era.

Bea2John Lahr, the drama critic for the New Yorker, once described Elaine Stritch as “possessing an absolute radar in terms of audience reaction that the newer generation simply lacks the opportunity in the theater to develop." Arthur was granted that same glorious opportunity to develop her craft. Funny enough, Stritch and Arthur had the same early teacher, the German director Erwin Piscator, whose students at the New School for Social Research included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis.

Piscator was a seminal influence on Bertolt Brecht, whose “The Threepenny Opera” with Kurt Weill occasioned Arthur’s breakthrough, when she was cast as Lucy Brown in the heralded 1954 off-Broadway production with Lotte Lenya. Arthur, by this time, had already been performing regularly, thanks to a theater culture that knew a good bass-baritone voice and imposing build when it saw them.

 “Let’s face it,” Arthur once quipped, “nobody ever asked me to play Juliet.” But she didn’t lack opportunities and it wasn’t long before Broadway would turn her into a star. In 1964, she played Yente the matchmaker in the original company of "Fiddler on the Roof." And shortly after that, Arthur scored her most popular stage success as the sloshed Vera Charles in the 1966 Broadway premiere of “Mame," directed by her husband, Gene Saks. That performance, played opposite Angela Lansbury, earned Arthur a Tony, and she later reprised the role in Saks' 1974 movie version, starring Lucille Ball.

The point of this history is that by the time she turned up as Maude on “All in the Family” in 1971, she already had a middle-aged appearance and an impressive career in the theater. No wet-behind-the-ears actress could have barged into the Bunker household and bossed around Carroll O’Connor’s formidable Archie. The comic heat between these heavyweights, who had worked together in the theater in the late '50s, was supercharged. I can still hear the note of revenge in her voice when Maude, Edith’s cousin who has come to nurse the Bunkers back to health, explains to an aggravated, flu-ridden Archie the nature of the breakfast she has prepared for him: “Cream of Wheat with cheese. It’s light, but it binds.”

I confess to being something an aficionado — OK, a fanatic — of 1970s sitcoms. The news of Arthur’s death came after I had just received the newly released first season of “Rhoda” on DVD, and had spent the wee hours of the morning in admiration, watching Valerie Harper dig into her character’s insecure skin and Nancy Walker deploy her jokes with all the crispness of a vaudevillian.

What struck me about “Maude,” when I watched the first season on DVD about two years ago, is how each episode, taped before a studio audience (a form of television Arthur was completely at home with), is like a mini-stage play. The series is still hilarious. Arthur knows that the only thing funnier than unbridled anger is unbridled exasperation, and you sense her thriving on the immediate response. 

But Arthur is not just clowning around. She’s boldly and robustly acting, exploring different aspects of her character in conflict with the world around her. Lear’s trailblazing social conscience was an ideal fit for Arthur’s long-standing desire to sink her teeth into something substantive. While Maude fought for progressive causes, Arthur held out for quality work.
Her indelible gifts found another great part in "The Golden Girls' '' Dorothy, the retired teacher living with her mother and two friends. Dorothy was softer than Maude, less battle-ready. But as brought to life by Arthur, she could rise to any challenge with a clobbering comeback or one of those intimidating stares that could wipe the smile off a statue.

Not every great television comedian emerged from the theater. But when I watch someone of Arthur’s caliber, I am instantly reminded of how such a piquant talent was cultivated and can’t help wondering whether we will ever see its like again.

-- Charles McNulty

Photos: Two sides of the incomparable Bea Arthur. Credit top and bottom: Associated Press

Comments () | Archives (6)

Bravo for such insight. They don't make 'em like Bea Arthur anymore. In an era where walking out of a limo without underwear makes you a celebrity, her passing is a reminder of what professionalism, craftsmanship and true talent are. Or were.

One of the funniest women of all time.

I ave never had a "celebrity" death affect me so. But she was so much more than a celebrity.

She was a talent.

Bea Arthur was a great person to work with. With her talent and those of Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty created a television series which garnered many awards and handed me my first EMMY for production engineering on the pilot of "The Golden Girls" on September14, 1985. Sharp, funny, humorous and she along with her cohorts in comedy have kept us laughing all these years. Great person and fine talent.

Great lady and humorist, loved her!

i had the privilege of watching Beatrice Arthur from the front row in some play i forget. one two-hander scene had her all the way downstage, i was riveted to her focus, timing, power, reserves, timing, timing, timing. what is timing but alertness to an insane degree matched by seamless responsiveness? i've never seen anything like it, not even elaine stritch, who is out of this world.

thank you for crediting live performance.

Bea did Mame in the year I was born. My mom was still playing the album when I was 4-5, and I was absolutely in love with Vera. I've never exactly put a finger on why, but I never outgrew my fascination over what she could bring to a role. I love the stage setting of Maude, and watching those, it's hard to name many actors today who could handle that. This article articulates her enormous talent--it's sad to see it go.

No one - with the possible exception of Jack Benny - could do more with a pause than Arthur. She was the queen of reactions.

My favorite memory of "Maude" was her performing "Me and My Shadow" with her black maid, Florida; and insisting on being the shadow. LOL!

You are so right to point-out the roots of her skill in live theatre. We lost the vaudeville generation, and now we are losing the theatre generation. Where is the school for comedy now? Nightclubs full of drunks, who will laugh at anything, so long as it is crude. And it shows.


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