Long before The Golden Girls, Bea Arthur was another sort of actress. Pre-Dorothy Zbornok, the divorced substitute school teacher, Arthur played all sorts of characters on stage.
Almost two decades before Golden Girls, Arthur portrayed Vera Charles in the Broadway musical Mame. She won a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and played the same character alongside Lucille Ball when Mame was revived as a movie.
Arthur got her acting start on stage in the 1940s. So when Norman Lear saw her on stage in 1971, she had quite the lengthy resume. Meanwhile, Lear was just beginning to turn the world of TV on its head. He saw Arthur, a tall, dignified woman of a certain age, and wanted to add her to the cast of All in the Family.
Because before Arthur was Dorothy on the Golden Girls, she was Maude Findley, Edith Bunker’s opinionated cousin on All in the Family. She was so good at playing Maude and butting heads with Archie that she got her own show.
A Decade After Golden Girls Ended, Bea Arthur Did One-Woman Play
Arthur talked about Lear back in 2001, when she was doing publicity for her one-woman show And Then There Was Bea. The Golden Girls had been off the air for a decade.
“We didn’t just come off the street and start working in television,” Arthur said. “We were theater 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.
“Well by then Norman Lear and I were very good friends. He had seen me in an Off-Broadway (play) and asked me to do a guest shot on All in the Family. That’s how Maude started.”
By 1977, Arthur won her first Emmy.
The Golden Girls came along eight years later. Three of the stars had deep stage roots. While Betty White came to the show with a resume built on TV performances, Rue McClanahan initially got her acting start on stage. Plus, she worked with Arthur on Maude.
Meanwhile, Estelle Getty was primarily known for her stage work. She’d just enjoyed her breakthrough role — in her late 50s — in the Broadway production of Torch Song Trilogy.
The women, were, indeed, golden. All four won Emmys. White, McClanahan and Arthur won back to back to back. Plus, Getty won Best Supporting Actress when Arthur earned the main acting category.
Back in 2001, when Arthur was doing the interview for And Then There Was Bea, the reporter asked her:
“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.”
Arthur’s response? It was true Dorothy from Golden Girls, who was another version of Maude.
“Oh what a lovely thing to say. That makes me feel wonderful.”