An interview with Bea Arthur.
When I was a kid, I had this twisted little fantasy that the characters on television were my friends. I would talk to them and tell them what was troubling me. About the time I was 7, I realized they weren't talking back. But, I still found great comfort in TV.
Mary Richards was charming but rather antiseptic. Lucy Ricardo was zany but she would have been annoying to hang out with. I would have eventually had to yell at her. Edith Bunker was delightful but there was Archie to contend with.
And then there was Maude. She was the kind of broad you could go out drinking with. REAL drinks - no screwdrivers for her. It would be tequila shots or martinis late into the night with Maude. It would be fun. The conversation would be interesting - tantalizing, enterprising, anything but compromising. You knew who she was, because Beatrice Arthur played her so well.
As it turns out, Maude was just one credit on a very impressive resume. Miss Arthur created the role of Yenta in the original production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. She played Vera Charles and won a Tony in the musical version of MAME. After playing Maude, Bea went on to know even greater success as Dorothy Zbornak on THE GOLDEN GIRLS.
Her latest project is a show called, "And Then There's Bea" an homage to her career and life, a collection of songs and stories she will be performing in Melbourne at the King Center INSERT DATES HERE. She was nice enough to talk to WATERMARK and was a delight. Right on Maude!
May I call you Bea? Certainly. May I call you Greg?
(Laughing) Yes you may Bea. It’s very nice to talk to you. Thank you.
How did things start for you? I went to The Dramatic Workshop of the New School in Manhattan, two years after Brando graduated Tony Curtis, Rod Stieger, Walter Matthau and Harry Belafonte were in my class.
And you…. It was a hell of a group. Everyone has done quite well.
What was your first professional show? Oh God, I have no idea, some summer stock thing a million years ago. The thing that really launched my career was an Off-Broadway production, the United States premiere of THREE PENNY OPERA, in 1954.
Your television work didn’t start until you were 48 when you first appeared on ALL IN THE FAMILY. It was great watching actors that knew what they were doing. We didn’t just come off the street and start working in television. We were theatre actors. My experiences in television, which I talk about in the new show, were so rewarding. We worked with such great, talented writers and actors and directors.
Was it hard going on to an established show like ALL IN THE FAMILY? Well by then Norman Lear and I were very good friends. He had seen me in an Off-Broadway and asked me to do a guest shot on ALL IN THE FAMILY. That’s how MAUDE started.
I was one of those kids that used television as a role model. MAUDE taught me that I had the right to be the person I wanted to be. Oh what a lovely thing to say. That makes me feel wonderful.
Which episode is your favorite? Mmmmmm, that’s hard to say. Probably one with Bill Macy. It was Maude and Walter – just the two of us, getting ready to go a convention where he was supposed to get some sort of award.
The Tuckahoe Small Businessman of the Year Award. Was that it?
I hope I am not scaring you with how much I remember. Well this episode was at the height of the feminist movement and I was bitching about the fact that I was a woman and a second class citizen. The writing was brilliant.
The one that sticks out in my mind was when Maude goes into therapy. Oh yes, the one-woman show. That was wonderful too. I also enjoyed the zany stuff that we did.
You did a lot of farce on MAUDE. Yes and it was great fun. There were so many good actors on that show.
I loved Mrs. Naugatuck, Hermoine Gingold. No, no, no that was Hermoine Badley.
Oh, sorry, I always confuse my Hermoines. What a stupid mistake. She was a big, big, big star in British film and musical theatre. She was a wonderful actress.
And this was after MAME, correct? Right.
Which you won a Tony Award for… Oh yes. Yes I did.
I never got to see the stage version of MAME, but I enjoyed you in the film. Oh God, no! You saw the film version of MAME? It’s horrible.
Well I enjoyed your performance in it. I hated it. Absolutely hate the film of MAME. It was one of those things you get talked into doing. At the time, I was married to the director of the film. He said, "As my wife you owe it to me."
Oooh. Guilt trip. I just felt that it was so badly miscast.
Perhaps Lucille Ball was not the right choice, but I am glad that it got your performance on film. When I think of Merman not getting to do the film of GYPSY… Now that was a glorious performance – such a beautiful show on Broadway.
We’ve talked about television, theatre and film – which medium is your favorite? Well I tell you, I will not do another series. The work is just too demanding. You have five days in which to do what is basically a new one-act play. I prefer having the luxury of really working on something, taking it out of town and getting to polish it.
So you’re happy to be involved in theatre again? Yes, it is much more rewarding; although, I would like to continue doing the occasional one shot thing.
You were very funny on MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE. You know, I just won a comedy award for that.
Congratulations. Well every five minutes there is an awards show but this was the American Comedy Award. That’s nice. It’s nice to be acknowledged.
They never really explained what happened to your character after she left in the ambulance, I hoped you’d come back.
In the script that I originally read, the episode ended with the little boy sitting next to me with his hair dyed black. I look at him and say, "Now remember, from now on your name is Pepe." I thought it was wonderfully funny. But, of course they cut it – evidently kidnapping isn’t amusing.
But don’t you think that we tend to take things to the Nth degree Well I can understand the kidnapping thing but I don’t think I would have touched it had I known the way it was going to end.
What did you do in the years between MAUDE and GOLDEN GIRLS? With the advent of AIDS, there was always something to do. I did a number of benefits. Oh Greg, so many friends gone. We lost so many fine people in the entertainment industry.
While I was doing the FL AIDS Ride, I met a woman who lost her son before AIDS even had a name. To think that there was a time when people wouldn’t even allow the word AIDS to be used in an obituary, and bodies weren’t being accepted by mortuaries. Horrible.
A new show must have been a blessing. How did the GOLDEN GIRLS get started? I have no idea! My agent called me one day and said, "What’s this that I hear about you doing a new series on NBC?" I said, "I don’t know what you’re talking about." Apparently the script said "a Bea Arthur type". Eventually I got my hands on the script. It was so literate and so funny and so adult that I said to myself, I must do this. I had no idea at the time that it would become a cult classic. The really, hip gay guys – evidently they used to watch it wearing costumes at bars. What fun.
Was it difficult to get all of you to do an ensemble show? Not at all. There were so many wonderful dynamics in that kind of show. I really came to love the relationship between Dorothy and her mother. It is one of the great relationships in all of entertainment. The difference in size, the whole love-hate thing, I just adored it.
Did television change much in the ten years between your two shows? Oh my God, I was amazed. Talk about pushing the envelope! We would fight the censors all the time on MAUDE. By the time GOLDEN GIRLS came along, anything goes! It was incredible some of the things that we got away with. I would read scripts and say, "We can’t do this," but we sure did!
Let’s talk about your current project. The title is? Not my idea! Not my idea!
What’s it called? The title is "And Then There’s Bea," underneath the title it says, "With Her Friend Billy Goldberg on the Piano". When people ask me what the show is like, I don’t know how hip you are or if you’re too young to get it, but I tell them it is Barbara Cook meets Redd Foxx.
Original music? No, no, no – we just picked some songs that we liked, including several brilliant songs by Billy.
Such as? Oh no, no, no. I shouldn’t give that away. People will have to come and see. I also tell some anecdotes. Hopefully the audience will find it as interesting and comforting as we have working on it. Billy and I have been getting together for almost four years. Through our talks and going through music we would add and delete things – a performance here, a performance there. I’ve never toured before, so I am very excited about that. It should be fun.
What is your life like these days? Well right now I am up to my ass in this show. But when I am not working you will find me at home in Los Angeles with my two dogs, beautiful Dobermans, and reading and cooking.
Who were your role models? Sid Caesar and Lotte Lenya. When you get to meet stars of that proportion, or work with them, you can’t help but be influenced.
Stardom is an interesting word. When did you first feel like you had made it? When did you first feel like a star? THREE PENNY OPERA. Yes. That was it. I talk about this in the show. I was out on stage all by myself and I began my song, (singing) "I used to believe in the days I was pure…" and the audience started laughing. And I thought "Oh my God. This is kind of wonderful." I hadn’t realized that it was funny. It’s so wonderful when an audience surprises you.
Back then did you ever think that the gay community would come as far as it has? Oh God no! Think about all the stuff that is happening in Vermont and now marriage in the Netherlands, that is incredible. Just wonderful.
We have spent so much time talking about the past. What do you want from the future? The future? My future? Well, I would like to see this show get to Broadway. And until then, I am looking forward to seeing the country, meeting new people and audiences, having some great meals.
How do you think people see you? Well, over the past few years, I’ve learned that people regard television stars as friends because we literally come into their living rooms. They’re very supportive and nice and sweet.
When you look back on your career, and this new show is certainly a forum for that, what have the greatest rewards been? Greatest rewards?
What has given you the most satisfaction? Knowing that I am not scared anymore. There’s no fear. I know who I am.