She was known for her husky voice and brash, outspoken attitude on TV, but actress Bea Arthur, who died Saturday at her Los Angeles home from cancer at the age of 86, was actually a very shy, sensitive woman, according to former “Golden Girls” co-stars Betty White and Rue McClanahan.
The duo appeared on the “Today” show on Monday (April 27) morning to pay homage to their good friend and former co-star. McClanahan, who met Arthur in 1972 on the sitcom “Maude,” said that despite being a last-minute addition to the cast after another actress dropped out before a crucial episode, she and Arthur got along “like cream” and immediately established a rapport that lasted a lifetime.
“She was very private and rather shy, rather timid,” said McClanahan of Arthur, describing a side her fans rarely saw. “Her emotions were just under the skin. You could look at her cross-eyed and she’d burst into tears … she was a sensitive soul.”
White, who in a statement said of Arthur’s death, “I knew it would hurt, I just didn’t know it would hurt this much,” told “Today” that what she would remember most was their happy times on “Golden Girls,” as well as Arthur’s 2002 one-woman show, “Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends,” which White went to see three times.
“To see her get up on that stage and command it as a one-woman show was mind-boggling,” White said. “I always loved her singing, her singing just always knocked me out, and she got to sing 17 songs in that show.”
Arthur, born Bernice Frankel in New York on May 13, 1922, started out in theater in the 1940s and was a nightclub singer before beginning her career in television, which netted her 11 Emmy nominations, including a win in 1977 for “Maude” and another in 1988 for “The Golden Girls.”
Arthur made history in “Maude,” a spin-off from the then-popular show “All in the Family,” when her liberated 47-year-old character, Maude Findlay, became pregnant unexpectedly during the show’s first season and decided to have an abortion. The two-part episode aired two months before the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion was decided.
She made another kind of history a decade later as part of the ensemble cast of “The Golden Girls,” a popular sitcom that ran from 1985-1992 and focused on the lives of four previously married older women sharing a house in Miami. The show, which is still in syndication and has achieved a kind of ironic cultural cachet with a new generation, took on the unusual-for-prime-time issues of aging and the sex lives of senior citizens, as well as other topical issues ranging from gun control to gay rights.