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BEA ARTHUR
1922-2009

 

BEA—AS IN BOLD, BRAVE AND BEAUTIFUL

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bea Arthur was gracious and refreshingly candid as she reminisced about the highs and lows of her life in this 1972 interview for TV Guide. But she made no mention of at least one pertinent bit of bio—her early marriage to screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur. On the other hand, she talked a lot about her second husband, director Gene Saks, who was very much present during our chat. Six years later, however, that marriage also came to an end. The divorce may have been traumatic, but Bea survived with grace and aged beautifully in the long-running hugely popular TV series “The Golden Girls.” You can still catch it on reruns.  --GUY FLATLEY

 

“I once went on the old Jack Paar show. Everybody kept telling Paar that Bea Arthur was the funniest gal in town. ‘Put her on your show,’ they said, ‘and she’ll be a live wire. She’ll have the audience in hysterics.’ Well, he put me on his show and my mouth twisted up and froze like this... and all I could say when he asked me questions was, ‘Yes...No...Yes...No.’ ”

Beatrice Arthur, a graying, casually pretty woman dressed in  a shirt, slacks and sneakers, is illustrating one of several engaging ways in which she differs from the blissfully  bossy, wickedly outspoken “Maude,” the middle-class, middle-aged wife and mother she brings to wacky, wisecracking life on CBS’s new comedy series. “I never know what to say about myself to an interviewer. I’ve got to have a character to play before I can open up. I’ll try to be enchanting for you, but...Gene, for heaven’s sake, help me!”

Gene is Gene Saks, the red-hot director of such movies as “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” “The Odd Couple” and the upcoming “Mame.” He is also Bea’s husband, and has been for the past 22 years. On this recent rain-soaked Sunday, he sits consolingly beside her in the den of their spacious country home, looking out over the swimming pool and the endless acres of richly wooded hills.

This is their last Sunday in New York. In a few days, they will bundle up their two sons—Matthew,
11, and Daniel, 8—and their two enormously extroverted and enormously enormous German shepherds—George and Julie—and wave good-by to the wilds of their Westchester retreat, as well as to the cheerful chaos of their Manhattan apartment. They’re headed for Hollywood, where Gene will begin the mountainous preparations for “Mame,” in which Lucille Ball will star. And in which Bea may appear as Mame’s boozy bosom buddy Vera Charles, a role she played to whisky-voiced perfection under Gene’s direction on Broadway.

But Bea’s real reason for going west is ‘Maude,’ Norman Lear’s brainchild, inspired by Bea’s triumphant performance last season as Edith Bunker’s delightfully bitchy, Archie-baiting cousin in two episodes of “All in the Family.”

“It’s funny,” Bea says. “You work your fanny off all those years, perfecting your craft in God knows how many plays and revues, and then you do one television show, and suddenly everyone knows you. I went into our village hardware store the other day and the man said, ‘Mrs. Saks, that was you on “All in the Family.” We had no idea!’ I said, ‘But my movie, “Lovers and Other Strangers,” was playing right next door here for several weeks,’ and he said, ‘Oh, movies—who goes?’

“This is the wildest thing that’s ever happened to me,” says Bea, whose own video tastes tend more toward old movies than new sitcoms. “When Norman called me from California and said he wanted me to do a segment of ‘All in the Family,’ I said, ‘Norman, don’t bug me. I’m terrified of flying, and I’m absolutely content to just sit home with the kids and relax.’ But Gene was out on the Coast making ‘The Last of the Red Hot Lovers,’ and I missed him so much that I decided to load myself down with sedatives and fly out to join him for a couple of weeks. Then Norman called me again and said, ‘Look, I know you’re coming out here; stay a few extra days and we’ll have you written into one of the episodes. If you decide the role’s not good enough, I’ll get another actress.’

“When I got out there and saw the script, I was uncertain. I said ‘I don’t know who Maude is.’ So Norman sent the writer, Rod Parker, over to our house. He asked me what I thought was funny and how I felt about a lot of things, and Gene told him what he loved about me, and what he hated about me. And that’s how Maude was born. In some ways, I am Maude. Like her, I’m a liberal—sometimes a pretty misguided liberal, I suppose. It just eats me up when I see somebody being dishonest; I’m the sort of person who goes through life taking landlords to small-claims court.

“Anyway, I did the show, it was fun, and I figured that was that. But some big executive at CBS happened to see it and he said, ‘Hey, who is that girl?  Let’s get her a show.’ After 25 years in the business, somebody says ‘who is that girl?’ and suddenly I’ve got my own TV show.”

Norman Lear was delighted but hardly surprised when that CBS biggie flipped over Bea. He himself had flipped over Bea 17 years earlier when he saw her in off-Broadway’s “Shoestring Revue.” “I’ll never forget her singing a torch song called ‘Garbage’,” Lear recently told me. “She sang it while leaning up against a street lamp, with a single spotlight on her. The idea was ‘Garbage, he treated me like garbage,’ and every time Bea sang the word garbage, the house rocked with laughter and I was afraid they’d have to send out for coffee and doughnuts from the Red Cross for the survivors.

“So many people in this business are carbons of other people, but Bea is an absolute original. You can’t put a label on her. When we decided to bring in a relative who hated Archie, we knew we needed somebody very strong to stand up against Carroll O’Connor and we never thought of anybody but Bea.”

Throughout her career, Bea’s specialty has been the sort of superwoman who has no trouble at all standing up against the male of the species—from the sharp-tongued tramp who speared Mack the Knife in the 1954 production of “The Threepenny Opera,” to the vinegary Vera Charles in “Mame,” to the meddlesome mama in Hollywood’s “Lovers and Other Strangers,” to the lovably manipulating Maude.

It follows, then, that Bea would give her unqualified blessing to the women’s-lib movement—right? Wrong. “I don’t know what the hell those women are fighting about,” Bea says, looking genuinely puzzled. “I’ve always had women’s lib.”

“But you’re not a woman, Bea,” Gene laughs.

“I honestly believe that each of us is his own man or woman. Each of us comes into this world totally unlike anyone else, and each of us determines his own fate.”

Beatrice Arthur came into this world the daughter of Jewish parents who were struggling to determine their own fate in a not very friendly New York.  “Because of the job situation during the Depression, my father moved us to Maryland. I was one of three girls, and all I ever wanted was to be an actress. I used to keep movie-star scrapbooks and trade movie-star pictures—you know, ‘I’ll give you two Clark Gables for one Carole Lombard.’ All those Hollywood ladies were so pretty and so short. By the time I was 12, I was 5 feet 9 1/2 inches—in my stocking feet!

“Nobody took me seriously when I said I wanted to be an actress, so I went to school and became a registered lab technician. That bored me. Finally,  I decided to come to New York and give acting a whirl, and that’s when I met Gene. It was right after the Second World War, and all the misfits banded together at the New School for Social Research to study acting with Irwin Piscator.”

“When I first met Bea,” says Gene, “she was trying to hide behind some actors on the stage because she felt so large.”

“Then one day Piscator noticed me,” says Bea. “I had a deep voice and was very thin in those days and he looked at me and said, ‘Here is our classical heroine.’ He had me doing all the classical parts after that—Lysistrata, Kate in ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ Clytemnestra—and the truth was that I couldn’t act at all!

“We used to make the rounds of the casting offices and then head for 42nd Street, where we’d catch up on all the movies,” Gene says.

“The thing I always loved about you, Gene, was your wild humor. Remember how you used to keep the class in stitches?”

We laughed at our wedding,” Gene remembers.

“Yes, we did, and the we went home to my $15-a-month- cold-water flat and walked the dog. I guess you might say we had some hard times, but it was fun! Even when we weren’t working—we’d go right down and pick up our unemployment checks and we never felt unsuccessful. We thought we were stars!”

“Sometimes I felt unsuccessful,” Gene ventures.

“You never did!”  Bea insists. “I wouldn’t permit it!”

Bea may have felt like a star, but she was not always accorded star treatment. “After all, how many Clytemnestras do they need on Broadway? When I found I couldn’t get a job in the theater, I studied with a voice teacher. A the time, all the girl singers were trying to sound like Lena Horne. Finally, I got a job in a night club and I failed miserably. I can still remember Julius Monk—as he was firing me-telling me he thought I had a great flair not for singing but for comedy.  I thought he was off his rocker, because I never thought I had a funny bone in my body.”

But Sid Caesar did.  “I used to do five-liners on the old ‘Show of Shows’—you know, crazy bits with no more than five lines of dialogue. Sid was my god in those days.”

Two decades later, Bea’s former god still recalls the ripple of excitement created by the long, thin brunette with the husky voice and the razor-sharp gift for timing. “I’m not saying I was any prophet,” he told me, “but I could see even then that this was a girl with something special. She was an extraordinarily talented comedienne and, most important, she had a style that was all her own.”

For Bea, the real show of shows—the show that marked her breakthrough in the theater—was “The Threepenny Opera,” the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical masterpiece starring Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya. The critics cheered Bea’s carbolic charm and sensuous voice, and she was launched on a seemingly unending series of second-banana roles. Always the side-kick, never the star.

Once, she even took a back seat to Tallulah Bankhead. “I was Tallulah’s understudy in something called ‘Ziegfeld Follies,’ which closed in Philadelphia. I also got to do every sketch which she thought unworthy of her. The first time I saw her make her entrance on stage, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. She came down a long, curving flight of stairs very slowly, and when she finally reached the bottom, she looked out at the audience and said, ‘Hello! I’m Tallulah Bankhead!’ Then she stood there for 20 minutes while the audience applauded her. Now, I ask you, how was I supposed to understudy that?”

Years later, when director Gene Saks asked his wife to play the nonleading-lady role of Mame’s alcoholic crony, she made it clear that the chum of Mame was not the name of the game. “I guess I really wanted to play Mame,” Bea says. “But Gene said, ‘As my wife, you owe it to me; you’re the only one to play Vera Charles. ‘So I did, and I had a ball.”

Angela Lansbury, who brightened up Broadway when she became the madcap  Mame had a  all, too—though things were a bit shaky in the beginning. “During rehearsals, Bea was very uncertain, very reticent about how to approach the role of Vera,” Lansbury told me. “She had never done anything quite like it before; the role required a blend of toughness and chic sophistication. But, in the end, Bea brought her own earthy, deadpan, gritty conviction to the part, and she created an uproarious, totally un-camp, character. She was never camp, and that was the secret of contribution to the show. She played Vera for real, but on a very high comic level.”

“Angela was marvelous, and she’s one of our very best friends,” says Gene.  “But by the time Bea had been in the show for a year, she’d had it with supporting roles. At the curtain calls, she would come out wearing a black dress, and then Angela would come out in a dazzling white dress, a brand new dress that she had not worn during the show.”

“So,” Bea tells me, “I said to myself, ‘the next show I do, I’m coming out in a white dress, or there won’t be a next show.’ ”

Nobody can doubt that on Bea’s television show, she is the star. Still, there is no dazzling white dress and there are thunderous, Broadway-style curtain calls. Does this mean that she suffers pangs of artistic frustration?

“There comes a moment when you wake up and realize you’re not Barbra Streisand,” she says. “If a woman reaches my age and she’s still fighting for roles, it can only mean that there’s something missing from her personal life.”

Outside, the raindrops keep falling on the swimming pool, and inside a monstrous German shepherd sashays through the den. “I have a complete personal life,” Bea says, brushing a speck of dirt from her sneakers as Gene puts another log on the fire.