Bea Arthur 1922-2009
05/11/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
Most comedians would need an arsenal of one-liners to coax the same laughs out of an audience that Bea Arthur could serve up with a withering glare or a flick of her wrist. "How she held on to an audience was a wonder," says Norman Lear, who produced her groundbreaking 1970s sitcom Maude. "She got roars just shifting her weight." The no-nonsense Arthur—who died of cancer April 25 at age 86—chalked that success up to hard work and a little luck. "I'd been working my ass off onstage for 25 years," she told PEOPLE in 1999. When Maude turned her into an overnight TV star at 50, it "made me feel like a middle-aged Cinderella."
Arthur's was a memorable fairy tale, one that shocked TV viewers when she played an outspoken mom who had an abortion on Maude and then earned their enduring affection a decade later when she starred as a feisty Miami retiree on the hit sitcom The Golden Girls. "She was a symbol of what women were fighting for," says Lear. Her own battle with cancer ended in her L.A. home, surrounded by her family, including sons Daniel and Matthew. Says Golden Girls costar Betty White: "She leaves us with a terrible hole."
Arthur never shared her cancer struggle with colleagues, leaving them bereft with the news of her passing. "She didn't let on anything was wrong," says Rue McClanahan, who costarred on both Maude and Golden Girls. "She was quite private." Except when she was performing. "She wasn't outgoing at all," says White, "but boy, when she got on-camera, she really could turn it on."
Born Bernice Frankel in New York City, Arthur trained to be a medical laboratory technician. But the statuesque stunner with a distinct deep voice (once described by the Toronto Star as "the Wicked Witch of the West crossed with James Earl Jones") always had more fun making people laugh. After getting hooked by her first onstage performance, singing "Are You from Dixie?" at a talent show at age 11, "I started being funny to get accepted," Arthur said in 2002. "I guess it happens to a lot of us oddballs."
Indeed, she quickly began receiving raves on Broadway—first as Yente, the matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof, in 1964, and then in her Tony-winning 1966 turn as a fun-seeking lush alongside Angela Lansbury in Mame. After seeing her onstage, Lear gave Arthur the plum job of going head-to-head with Carroll O'Connor's cantankerous conservative Archie Bunker as his cousin-in-law Maude on All in the Family. And then there was Maude. The hit spinoff earned Arthur five Emmy nominations and one win in 1977. But Adrienne Barbeau, who played her daughter, knows that Arthur's two sons, who "were her life," meant far more to her than awards. "She didn't need constant accolades," says Barbeau. "She was very down-to-earth and generous." Adds Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, who got his start as a Golden Girls writer: "She had a brusque exterior, but on the inside she was a pile of mush."
After leaving Golden Girls in 1992, the twice-divorced Arthur preferred family life to most job offers (though she did play Larry David's mom on Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2005 and a very strict babysitter on a 2000 episode of Malcolm in the Middle). Too bad for TV fans. "We will never see her like again," says Cherry. "She was the last of the great broads."