Nobody could do a slow burn like Bea Arthur, the hilarious comic actress who was the anything but tranquilizin’ right-on Maude and later the witheringly sarcastic Dorothy on The Golden Girls. With her wicked wit, Bea pushed envelopes while making audiences think and scream with laughter at the same time. Only a talent as strong as Bea could survive both the rotten movie of Mame–which she told me she only took part in because her husband at the time was the director and he made her do it–and The Star Wars Holiday Special, the worst two hours ever seen on TV, in which Bea sang a bizarre Brechtian song with some space aliens. (She never told me why she did that one.)
With Bea’s passing having ruined my whole weekend, I’m now extra glad I got to see her one-woman show on Broadway in 2002. It was campy and low-keyed and kind of homey, and she even got to make that old joke about a certain B-list actress work. (Bea quipped that the actress once starred in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank, and when the Nazis showed up, the audience yelled, “She’s in the attic!”). Alas, critics compared Bea’s show unfavorably (and unfairly) to Elaine Stritch‘s one-woman presentation, which was saucier and more personal. Maybe it was Stritch’s unwitting revenge for having turned down the part of Dorothy on Golden Girls!
Anyway, Bea Arthur changed the face of TV and made it bolder, grayer, and way smarter. For that–and for wearing some very fierce caftans–I’ll always be glad I was on the Bea list.