‘Golden Girls’ Star Bea Arthur Revealed the ‘Real Reason’ She Took on ‘Mame’ Movie with Lucille Ball

by Suzanne Halliburton

Golden Girls star Bea Arthur won her first significant award for Mame. It was the Broadway production and Arthur earned a Tony.

Long before she played Dorothy Zbornak, Arthur was Vera Charles for the Mame stage production. But she needed a nudge from someone close to her to be in the Hollywood movie version of the Broadway show. In an interview in 2002, Arthur explained why she accepted the movie part.

 “The real reason I did it is because I was flushed with success, having had a season of Maude,” Arthur said. “And I was married to the director at the time (Gene Saks). He said, ‘As my wife, you owe it to me to do it.’ “

Mame was the final movie for Lucille Ball. She played the Auntie Mame character. In the Broadway production, Angela Lansbury was Mame. Bea Arthur was Vera Charles, Mame’s best friend, on both Broadway and the movie.

The movie was supposed to start filming in 1972. But Ball broke her leg. Because of the medical delay, George Cukor, the movie’s original director, dropped out. Cukor’s replacement was Gene Saks, who directed the show on Broadway.

Like Dorothy on Golden Girls, Bea Arthur Was a Divorcee

Saks and Arthur were married from 1950 to 1978. They maintained their marriage through Arthur’s starring role in Maude, but divorced before she hit super stardom in the Golden Girls. Saks won three Tony awards for directing the plays I Love My Wife, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues.

For as much success as Bea Arthur had on stage and the small screen, she didn’t do many movies. She had four on her acting resume. They were Mame, Lovers and Other Strangers, History of the World, Part 1 and For Better or Worse.

But Arthur always will be known as Dorothy on Golden Girls. She said she loved the stage best of all, but Arthur helped redefine how older women were perceived in Hollywood.

From 1985 through 1992, Arthur was the divorced substitute school teacher. She shared a Miami home with her mother, Sophia (Estelle Getty), along with Blanche (Rue McClanahan) and Rose (Betty White).

In both Maude and the Golden Girls, Arthur chose to leave the shows. She spent six years as Maude and seven as Dorothy.

And she said she always declined to do a reunion show for the Golden Girls. Her reasoning made sense.

Arthur said: “Everyone says, ‘Oh you must do it. People will love it.’ And I say, ‘Absolutely not!’ How could we top some of the good work we did?”

Bea Arthur never remarried after she and Saks divorced in 1978. She lived in California, with her two sons nearby. She died in 2009 at age 86.