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And Then There's Bea

8 Feb, 2007 By: John Latchem



Bea Arthur may have settled into retirement, but her legacy is enjoying new life on DVD. Just as the home video run of 1980s hit “The Golden Girls” comes to an end this week, Arthur's landmark 1970s series “Maude” is slated to debut.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will release Maude: The Complete First Season March 20 (prebook Feb. 15) as a $29.95 three-DVD set containing all 22 episodes from the 1972-73 season.

The show sprang from a guest stint during the second season of “All in the Family,” produced by one of Arthur's oldest friends, Norman Lear, who based the character of overtly liberal Maude Findlay on his wife.

Arthur quickly established herself as the only person willing to stand toe-to-toe with her cousin Edith's husband, arch-conservative bigot Archie Bunker.

“The head of CBS asked ‘Who is that girl? Let's give her her own series,’ Arthur said. “It's a Cinderella story, but much older.”

“Maude” debuted in the fall of 1972. Other stars included Bill Macy, Adrienne Barbeau and Rue McClanahan, as well as Conrad Bain, who would later find success with “Diff'rent Strokes,” and Esther Rolle as housekeeper Florida Evans, who proved so popular she was given her own spinoff, “Good Times.”

The show broke from sitcom conventions with its role reversal of having a female head of household.

“I think it changed sitcoms forever,” said Arthur, who would win an Emmy for the role. “I'm sure there never would have been a ‘Roseanne' if not for ‘Maude.’

While Arthur found playing the outspoken Maude “marvelous” fun, she said she personally was not as political.

“I never would have made people sign petitions,” Arthur said. “But I agreed with all of the topics Norman could come up with. He would put a new spin on them to make them funny.”

Episodes dealt with such issues as race relations, feminism, pornography, drugs and political campaigning. However, none were more controversial than the famous first-season two-parter “Maude's Dilemma,” in which 47-year-old Maude learns she is pregnant and decides to have an abortion. The episodes aired Nov. 14 and 21, 1972, two months before the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling.

“Talk about a no-no,” Arthur said. “A number of stations wouldn't show the episode.”

The young writer who came up with that episode was Susan Harris, who later created “The Golden Girls” with Arthur as the inspiration for a key role.

“An agent friend of mine said he heard I was doing a new sitcom,” Arthur recalls. “It turned out there was a script that was being sent around, and it described the character of Dorothy as ‘a Bea Arthur type.’

“When I first read the script, it didn't occur to me it was a show about older ladies,” Arthur said. “I just thought it was very funny. I had to do it.”

The show reunited Arthur with McClanahan, who in turn was reunited with her “Mama's Family” co-star Betty White. Estelle Getty played Dorothy's mother, Sophia. All four won Emmys during the run of the show.

“We had a first-rate team,” Arthur said. “The cast, the writing, the direction … even the costumes. There was not one weak link in the whole show. I really think the relationship between Sophia and Dorothy represented one of the funniest comedy duos in history.”

The Golden Girls: The Complete Seventh Season streets Feb. 13 and includes all 26 episodes from the 1991-92 final season of the popular sitcom in a $39.99 three-DVD set from Buena Vista Home Entertainment.

In the final episode, Dorothy gets married and moves away with her new husband, played by Leslie Nielsen.

“It was just a graceful way of having me leave the show,” Arthur said, having declined to star in a continuation, “The Golden Palace,” in which the ladies take over a hotel.

Arthur made a guest appearance on the new show, but the revamped format was not as popular, and the series ended after just one season.

“It didn't make any sense to me to keep going,” Arthur said.


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