Some actors and actresses are happy to live a life that entails standing in front of the camera, saying their lines, looking pretty, and enjoying the affluence and privileges that come with being famous. Asides the foregoing, they care less about people around them. It is a culture that has made regular people consider Hollywood stars to be out of touch. However, among the multitude of people whose wealth and fame has driven away from the issues facing the common man, there are still a few whose life work and legacy crossed the boundaries of film into affecting real-life issues. One such standout was Bea Arthur, the award-winning actress whose excellence was much in front of the screen as it was off of it.
Who Was Bea Arthur?
Bea Arthur was a stage and screen actress extraordinaire. With her signature husky voice, wit, commanding stature and flair for the comic jab, she created two of the most endearing battle-axes in TV history. One was the strong-willed, fiercely independent Maude Findlay in the CBS sitcom Maude and the other, no-nonsense, sharp-tongued Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls.
She was born as ‘Bernice Frankel’ on the 13th of May, 1922 to the middle-class family of Rebecca and Phillip Frankel in New York. Though she was popularly known as Bea, she was billed in the theater and on TV as Beatrice, a name she made up. Born to Jewish parents, Bea, along with her sisters, Gertrude and Marian, was raised in a period when Jewish people were overtly discriminated against. It is possible Bea’s adult life of activism was as a result of her childhood experiences.
Her parents’ enterprising nature took them to Cambridge, Maryland. There, she nursed a dream of becoming either a chanteuse (a female singer of popular songs) or an actress and entertained friends with imitations of Mae West.
While Bea Arthur was a young adult and had completed her basic education, World War II began. Not looking to sit back while someone else fought the battles she should be fighting for herself, she joined the army in 1942 and served as a truck driver and typist. She served under the United States Marine Corps and finished her service as a Staff Sergeant in 1944.
When she returned home, she was faced with the decision of determining what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Bea Arthur attended Blackstone College, a two-year school in Virginia, and later studied to be a medical technician. Although she initially wanted to pursue a career in medicine, she abandoned it and chose her childhood dream career, acting, instead.
Bea Arthur’s Career Accomplishment
Having chosen to be an actor, she quickly began her education to be one, enrolling at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research in New York. While she studied, she also became part of a theatre group that produced off-Broadway plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
Before she starred in the musical Mame, which earned her recognition across the theatre and film scene, she participated in a few plays including a Broadway called Fiddler on the Roof. Her role as Vera Charles in Mame earned her a Tony award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, a culmination of her short but successful theatre career.
The glory of Bea Arthur’s acting career shone mostly on Television where she made history. It all started after a guest appearance on All in the Family. Playing an outspoken liberal feminist, her character, Maude, was well received by the studio executives as well as the viewers and she was immediately given her own show – off just one-episode appearance.
She would go on to star as the lead in the show titled Maude (which aired from 1972 to 1978). With the show, Maude lent her voice to the social and political issues of the time, tackling everything from the Vietnam War, alcoholism, infidelity, women’s liberation, racism, abortion, addiction to gay rights. The show was an instant success, with its Thanksgiving Special recording a reported 65 million viewers. She won an Emmy for Maude in 1977.
After Maude, Beatrice appeared in a few other shows before she joined NBC’s The Golden Girls (1985 to 1992). Like Maude, the show also portrays hot-button issues like aging, gun control, gay rights, and domestic violence. The Golden Girls earned Beatrice her second major acting award, winning an Emmy in 1988.
When it came to feature films, however, Beatrice did not appear in a lot of them despite her fame. Her few notable appearances include a reprisal of her role as Vera Charles in the film adaptation of Mame and a 1995 movie, For Better or Worse.
As a woman who was never content just being a Hollywood princess, she was an activist for issues such as animal and LGBT rights.
Was She Gay?
She had a lasting personal relationship with Adrienne Barbeau, her Maude co-star, which, along with her fervent defense of gay rights, sparked rumors that she was gay/homosexual. However, Bea Arthur was as straight as they came. She was married twice in her lifetime, both times to men.
Her first marriage was to a fellow marine, Robert Alan Aurthur, who she married when she was in the military. Though the two later got divorced, Bea kept using his surname – albeit a modified spelling of the name. Robert later found a career in the entertainment industry as well, becoming a screenwriter, director, and film producer.
Her next marriage was to Gene Saks, an American director in 1950. The couple adopted two sons – Matthew and Daniel – together. They sadly got divorced in 1978, after nearly three decades together.
How Much Was Bea Arthur Worth?
A successful and inspiring career helped Bea Arthur amass a net worth of $8 million. Her successful and iconic shows like Maude and The Golden Girls were huge commercial hits and made a considerable impact on the material value of Bea’s work.
Her kindness, selflessness, and support for the LGBT community shone even in her death. A long fierce and vocal advocate for LGBT, Bea left behind a gift that keeps on giving. She included a $300,000 donation to help New York’s Ali Forney Center, a home for homeless LGBT youths. In 2017, her dreams to do anything to give those homeless youth a place to call home were finally fulfilled. The Center built a brand-new, 18-bed shelter called the Bea Arthur Residence in honor of her memory.
How Did She Die?
After a long and accomplished life, the stage and screen diva and star of two TV comedies, Bea Arthur died at her Brentwood home in Los Angeles, on Saturday, April 25th, 2009. She was less than three weeks shy of her 87th birthday. The cause of her death was ruled as lung cancer.
After her death, her body was cremated and her ashes spread throughout Miami as per her wishes. She left her fans and the entertainment world with lots of joyful memories and tons of laughter. Bea Arthur is survived by two sons, two granddaughters and a legacy of using her fame and influence to help people around the world.