Bea Arthur's Memories Of Stage And Screen

Fresh Air host Terry Gross remembers the star of Broadway's Mame and TV's Maude, who died April 26, with excerpts from a 2007 interview.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Bea Arthur died of cancer, Saturday, at the age of 86. We're going to listen back to an interview with her. In the New York Times obituary, Bruce Weber described her as having used her husky voice, commanding stature and flair for the comic jab to create two of the most endearing battle-axes in TV history, Maude Findlay in the groundbreaking sitcom "Maude" and Dorothy in "The Golden Girls." She won Emmys for both portrayals. Bea Arthur got her first big break as Lucy Brown in the first American production of "The Threepenny Opera." I spoke with her two years ago after the DVD release of "Maude." So we started with a clip from it.

"Maude" was often topical, dealing with race, the war in Vietnam, and most famously, abortion. This scene is from the double episode in which the 47-year-old Maude is shocked to learn that she is pregnant. She doesn't want to have the baby. It's too late in her life and too medically risky. But she assumes her husband Walter does want the baby because he has never fathered a child. She is considering having the baby for his sake. Walter tells Maude that he is going to have a vasectomy so they can avoid getting into this predicament again. It turns out, he can't go through with a vasectomy but he doesn't have the courage to tell her. In this scene, they are in bed playing cards. She has just told him she's worried that if something ever happened to her, he wouldn't be able to father a baby because of the vasectomy.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Maude")

Mr. BILL MACY (Actor): (As Walter) Wait a second, Maude. Were you having the baby because you thought I wanted it?

Ms. BEATRICE ARTHUR (Actress): (As Maude) Well you do, don't you?

Mr. MACY: (As Walter) Sweetheart, would it disappoint you too much to learn that becoming a father was never one of my life's ambitions? I - I don't know why. For years I used to feel guilty about it. For years, people told me I was nuts, or selfish. How can I not love kids? Well, I do love kids but they don't have to be mine. That's probably the worse confession I'll ever make. Do you hate me?

Ms. ARTHUR: (As Maude) Of course, not darling. I love you. I love you and I love my life.

Mr. MACY: (As Walter) Gin.

Ms. ARTHUR: (As Maude) I take it all back. What are you trying to do to me? I don't even have time to sort my cards and you're ginning out on me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACY: (As Walter) Forget the cards, Maude, we have something much more important to talk about.

Ms. ARTHUR: (As Maude) What? You finally decided you do want a pickle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACY: (As Walter) Maude, I want you to have whatever it is you want. Does that include the baby?

Ms. ARTHUR: (As Maude) Well it did - well I thought you wanted it.

Mr. MACY: (As Walter) Well Maude, I think it would be wrong to have a child at our age.

Ms. ARTHUR: (As Maude) Oh so do I, Walter. Oh Walter, so do I.

Mr. MACY: (As Walter) We'd make awful parents.

Ms. ARTHUR: (As Maude) Oh, impatient, irascible.

Mr. MACY: (As Walter) Awful, (Unintelligible).

Ms. ARTHUR: (As Maude) Oh, for other people it might be fine, but for us, I don't think it would be fair to anybody. Oh Walter, hold me closer.

Mr. MACY: (As Walter) Are you frightened Maude, about the operation, I mean.

Ms. ARTHUR: (As Maude) Oh don't be ridiculous, darling. Why should I be frightened? Were you frightened of the vasectomy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARTHUR: (As Maude) I said, were you frightened about the vasectomy?

GROSS: That's an episode from "Maude" was my guest Bea Arthur and William Macy. And this was 1972 when abortion...

Ms. ARTHUR: Yeah, 45 years ago, yes.

GROSS: Yeah, you know, abortion was legal in New York, but the Supreme Court had not yet ruled on Roe v. Wade. "Maude" was the first TV character to have an abortion. Bea Arthur, what was your reaction when you read the script?

Ms. ARTHUR: Well, I tell you. When I first read the script I wasn't - I wasn't that involved with the - the politics of the topic. I mean, I just read it and thought my God, what a brilliant script. I just thought it was beautiful. I'm sitting here, and as I heard that scene again, I really got a little teary. It was beautiful. It was funny but it was so beautiful.

GROSS: So what kind of reactions did you get to this, both as a program and personally, from people who you knew or met?

Ms. ARTHUR: Well, I tell you, the mail was enormous. But I was never shown what we call hate mail. What I had seen was very intelligent, caring people who voiced their displeasure and explained why. And I think it was the first time I had ever even thought about it, because I came from a very small town on the eastern shore of Maryland, and when anybody got pregnant, the thing was to have an abortion. Of course it was not legal, but that's what everybody did. I mean I'd never had an abortion, but I certainly thought of why it's very painful.

GROSS: I want to play a scene from the "The Golden Girls," and in case anybody doesn't know what that series was, you were in your 50s for this series and lived in Miami, in a house with your mother, who was in her mid 80s, and your two other single women friends. And in this scene, you've just ended your therapy with your ex, Stan, and you've agreed not to see each other for a couple of years. So you are back at home with your women friends, telling them how happy you are to be done with Stan. Here is the scene.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Golden Girls")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARTHUR: (As Dorothy Petrillo Zbornak) I'll tell you I'm still stunned. I mean I just can't get over that Stan is gone forever. I'm finally free.

Ms. BETTY WHITE: (As Rose Nylund) Really, oh.

Ms. ARTHUR: (as Dorothy) And I feel great. As a matter of fact a toast.

Ms. WHITE: (as Rose) Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARTHUR: (as Dorothy) To finality and closure, to husbands being out of our lives and gone forever.

Ms. RUE MCLANAHAN: (as Blanche) Oh, Dorothy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARTHUR: (as Dorothy) No wait, wait. This is good, I mean, don't cry. Why are you crying?

Ms. WHITE: (as Rose) Our husbands are dead, you monster.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARTHUR: (as Dorothy) I'm sorry. I mean, I didn't mean it that way. Oh, come on now, let's celebrate.

Ms. MCLANAHAN: (as Blanche) Celebrate? You don't know what it's like to have a husband die and leave you with nothing, just a closet full of suits that you spend the rest of your lonely life trying to get rid of. What are you anyway, a 42 regular?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARTHUR: (as Dorothy) Look, I'm sorry if I seemed insensitive. But in every relationship, there are always times when you don't want to be with each other. I mean Stan and I went through a period where we had no marital relations at all. I totally cut off his sex.

Ms. WHITE: (as Rose) You mean it grows back?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's an episode of "The Golden Girls," with my guest, Bea Arthur, along with Rue McClanahan and Betty White. Were you able to get away with a lot of sex jokes on "The Golden Girls" because it was about older women?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARTHUR: I guess so, I guess so. Yes, the first time you saw women - I hate that expression - of a certain age well-groomed and having active sex lives and great earrings, I remember.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARTHUR: And yeah, the reason I stumble when asked that question is because when I first read the first script, I thought it was one of the funniest, most adult, intelligent scripts I'd ever read. I never even stopped to think, hey these are older women. It just seemed very funny to me.

GROSS: Let's go back to the very start of your career. You were in the famous 1954 production of the "The Threepenny Opera," which was the first...

Ms. ARTHUR: Oh yes.

GROSS: English production of the Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht musical translated by Mark Blitzstein.

Ms. ARTHUR: No, it was the first U.S. production.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. I want to play, like, a fantastic duet from this 1954 cast recording with you and Jo Sullivan, who later became Jo Sullivan Loesser...

Ms. ARTHUR: Yes, yes.

GROSS: ...when she married the songwriter Frank Loesser...

Ms. ARTHUR: Yes, yes.

GROSS: ...and this is just a fantastic recording and you sound great in it. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of "The Threepenny Opera")

Ms. ARTHUR: (Singing) (as Lucy) Come on out, you got a lily you, show your leg and let's all be called pretty, I'm always glad to admire beauty, where the (unintelligible) in the city. You thought you could make a big impression on my Mackie.

Ms. JO SULLIVAN: (Singing) (as Polly) Yes I, yes I.

Ms. ARTHUR: (Singing) Yes, you have met his old friend Jackie.

Ms. SULLIVAN: (Singing) Yes I, yes I.

Ms. ARTHUR: (Singing)Well you kind of make me laugh.

Ms. SULLIVAN: (Singing) Oh, I kind of make you laugh.

Ms. ARTHUR: (Singing) Who would want a stupid cat?

Ms. SULLIVAN: (Singing) Who would want one stupid cat?

Ms. ARTHUR: (Singing) How now there's the leg for you so Mackie needs to beg for you.

Ms. SULLIVAN: (Singing) Well you better ask him.

Ms. ARTHUR: (Singing) Yes you better ask him.

Ms. SULLIVAN: (Singing) You better I think.

Ms. ARTHUR: You better I think. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha-ah-h-a-a-a-a-h-h-h.

Ms. ARTHUR and Ms. SULLIVAN: Mackie, I need, I always knew you'd choose me. Mackie, I need, indeed you'll never lose me, he's not in any danger, and (unintelligible), he'll leave me for a stranger.

Ms. ARTHUR and Ms. SULLIVAN: Laughable.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SULLIVAN: Yes they call me beauty of the town...

GROSS: That's my guest Bea Arthur along with Jo Sullivan, now Jo Sullivan Loesser, from the 1954 cast recording of "The Threepenny Opera." Bea Arthur, what's your favorite memory of performing in that show in 1954?

Ms. ARTHUR: It was very - to this day the most exciting moment of my life. I walked into stage left and I started singing and my first lyrics were: I used to believe in the days I was pure. And the audience started laughing. And I thought, why the hell are you laughing at me? And then my next line was: and I was pure, like you used to be. And they laughed again. And I suddenly thought, hey that's what comedy is. It's being true to what you're playing and you must never show people that you're trying to be funny.

You just - there's a reality and an honesty. And it made my life. Because prior to that, I had never attempted comedy. I always pictured myself as - not as a tragedian, but certainly as a very tall, very young leading woman.

GROSS: Well Bea Arthur, thank you so much.

Ms. ARTHUR: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Bea Arthur recorded in 2007. She died of cancer Saturday, at the age of 86.

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'Golden Girls' Star Bea Arthur Dies At 86

Beatrice Arthur, the tall, deep-voiced actress whose razor-sharp delivery of comedy lines made her a TV star in the hit shows Maude and The Golden Girlsand who won a Tony Award for the musical Mame died Saturday. She was 86.

Arthur died peacefully at her Los Angeles home with her family at her side, family spokesman Dan Watt said. She had cancer, Watt said, declining to give further details.

"She was a brilliant and witty woman," said Watt, who was Arthur's personal assistant for six years. "Bea will always have a special place in my heart."

Arthur first appeared in the landmark comedy series All in the Family as Edith Bunker's loudly outspoken, liberal cousin, Maude Finley. She proved a perfect foil for blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), and their blistering exchanges were so entertaining that producer Norman Lear fashioned Arthur's own series.

In a 2008 interview with The Associated Press, Arthur said she was lucky to be discovered by TV after a long stage career, recalling with bemusement CBS executives asking about the new "girl."

"I was already 50 years old. I had done so much off-Broadway, on Broadway, but they said, 'Who is that girl? Let's give her her own series,"' Arthur said.

Maude scored with television viewers immediately on its CBS debut in September 1972, and Arthur won an Emmy Award for the role in 1977.

The comedy flowed from Maude's efforts to cast off the traditional restraints that women faced, but the series often had a serious base. Her husband Walter (Bill Macy) became an alcoholic, and she underwent an abortion, which drew a torrent of viewer protests. Maude became a standard bearer for the growing feminist movement in America.

Golden Girls (1985-1992) was another groundbreaking comedy, finding surprising success in a television market increasingly skewed toward a younger, product-buying audience.

The series concerned three retirees — Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan — and the mother of Arthur's character, Estelle Getty, who lived together in a Miami apartment. In contrast to the violent Miami Vice, the comedy was nicknamed "Miami Nice."

As Dorothy Zbornak, Arthur seemed as caustic and domineering as Maude. She was unconcerned about the similarity of the two roles. "Look, I'm 5-feet-9, I have a deep voice and I have a way with a line," she told an interviewer. "What can I do about it? I can't stay home waiting for something different. I think it's a total waste of energy worrying about typecasting."

The interplay among the four women and their relations with men fueled the comedy, and the show amassed a big audience and 10 Emmys, including two as best comedy series and individual awards for each of the stars.

Arthur's biggest Broadway triumph came in 1966 as Vera Charles, Angela Lansbury's acerbic friend in the musical Mame, directed by Gene Saks, whom Arthur had married in 1950. Richard Watts of the New York Post called her performance "a portrait in acid of a savagely witty, cynical and serpent-tongued woman."

She won the Tony as best supporting actress and repeated the role in the unsuccessful film version that also was directed by Saks, starring Lucille Ball as Mame. Arthur would play a variation of Vera Charles in Maude and The Golden Girls.

"There was no one else like Bea," said Mame composer Jerry Herman. "She would make us laugh during Mamerehearsals with a look or with a word. She didn't need dialogue. I don't know if I can say that about any other person I ever worked with."

Arthur and Saks divorced in 1978 after 28 years. They had two sons, Matthew and Daniel.

In 1999, Arthur told an interviewer of the three influences in her career: "Sid Caesar taught me the outrageous; [method acting guru] Lee Strasberg taught me what I call reality; and [Threepenny Opera star] Lotte Lenya, whom I adored, taught me economy."

In recent years, Arthur made guest appearances on shows including Curb Your Enthusiasm and Malcolm in the Middle. She was chairwoman of the Art Attack Foundation, a nonprofit performing arts scholarship organization.

Arthur is survived by her sons and two granddaughters. No funeral services are planned.

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