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BEA ARTHUR, 86

Bea Arthur Dies; Sharp-Tongued Sitcom Roles Symbolized Feminism's Rise

Bea Arthur, third from left, won an Emmy for her role in "The Golden Girls." With her are cast mates Estelle Getty, left, Rue McClanahan and Betty White.
Bea Arthur, third from left, won an Emmy for her role in "The Golden Girls." With her are cast mates Estelle Getty, left, Rue McClanahan and Betty White. (Associated Press)

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By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bea Arthur, 86, the actress whose well-timed put-downs, delivered with deep-voiced sarcasm, helped make her a comedy star and social spokeswoman in two major television sitcoms, "Maude" and "The Golden Girls," died April 25 at her home in Los Angeles.

A family spokesman attributed her death to cancer.

Once a wisecracking teenager growing up on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Ms. Arthur went on to an acting career that brought her two of television's Emmy Awards.

One came in 1977 for "Maude," in which she played the title role and was regarded as a symbol of the rise of feminism in American life.

The second came in 1988 for "The Golden Girls," which ran for seven years and, with its focus on older women, was said to stretch the demographic boundaries of the television audience.

In a long stage career, she played in the original Broadway version of "Fiddler on the Roof" and won a Tony Award for her supporting role in "Mame."

A springboard to her TV stardom was provided by the celebrated television comedy series "All in the Family," in which she played the liberal cousin of Edith Bunker, the wife of the bigoted Archie Bunker.

With a physical stature that at 5 feet 9 seemed as imposing as her fearless confidence in her social views, Ms. Arthur's character, Maude Findlay, delighted audiences in her ability to stand up to Archie. She responded to him tit-for-tat, in exchanges that raised the temperature of the cathode ray tube.

Those guest appearances opposite Carroll O'Connor's Archie were said to have so impressed the show's producer, Norman Lear, and the top brass of the CBS network that she was regarded as a hot new discovery.

This turn of events was viewed by Ms. Arthur off screen in a way reminiscent of the acerbity of her on-screen characters.

In a 2008 interview with the Associated Press, she suggested a degree of amused bewilderment at how the CBS executives spoke of her as the new "girl."

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


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