The commanding actress who was a prime-time icon

Bea Arthur, who has died of cancer at 86, once said that her most memorable characters were outspoken, tart-tongued “bubble prickers.” It was a persona she perfected as Maude Findlay, the stridently liberal matriarch on the hit 1970s sitcom Maude, and as the caustic retiree Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls from 1985 to 1992—roles that won her two Emmy Awards.

Growing up in New York and Maryland, Arthur “dreamed of being a petite blond movie star like June Allyson,” said the Associated Press. But by the time she was 12, she had reached her adult height of 5 feet 9. Being tall and deep-voiced got her “chosen for the male roles in school plays,” and she “overcame shyness about her size by winning over her classmates with wisecracks.” After working briefly as a medical lab technician, she enrolled in drama school. Eventually Arthur hit her stride as Lucy Brown in the 1955 production of The Threepenny Opera and as Yente the Matchmaker in the original company of Fiddler on the Roof in 1964. Her role as Angela Lansbury’s wisecracking sidekick Vera Charles in Mame won her raves and a Tony; Time said she “delivers a line as if someone had put lye in her martinis.”

In 1971, producer Norman Lear cast her as Edith Bunker’s cousin Maude in his classic sitcom All in the Family, said The Washington Post. A boisterously left-leaning women’s libber, Maude “delighted audiences in her ability to stand up to Archie,” Edith’s bigoted blue-collar husband, played by Carroll O’Connor. Her spinoff series debuted the following year. Opposite Bill Macy as her fourth husband—to whom she would periodically deadpan, “God will get you for that, Walter”—Arthur played a character who periodically “sought to face, in what she viewed as a liberated way, the problems of modern family life.” Maude dealt with such then-taboo subjects as homosexuality, alcoholism, cosmetic surgery, and mental illness; “when Maude had an abortion, it touched off an avalanche of protest mail.” But although Arthur proudly stated, “I think we made television a little more adult,” she was uncomfortable as a feminist icon. “It put a lot of unnecessary pressure on me,” she recalled.

After Maude ended, in 1978, Arthur continued to do much TV work, including Amanda’s, a short-lived and critically panned American version of the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, said the Los Angeles Times. She returned to form with The Golden Girls, which “followed the lives of three older women sharing a household in Miami” with Arthur’s character’s widowed mother—Sophia, played by Estelle Getty—whose stroke had “freed her from the constraints of tact.” The graying cast, which included “Betty White as the naïve Rose and Rue McClanahan as the saucy Blanche,” was a surprise hit among viewers older than those in the networks’ prized 18-to-34 demographic group. Arthur’s disdainful Dorothy had much in common with Maude, but the similarity didn’t bother her. “Look,” she said, “I’m 5 feet 9, I have a deep voice, and I have a way with a line. 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.” 

Married twice, the second time to the director Gene Saks, Arthur is survived by two sons.