Born Bernice Frankel May 13, 1922, Beatrice (Bea) Arthur appeared at Off-Broadway's Theatre de Lys in the famed production of The Threepenny Opera, which featured Arthur as Lucy Brown and Lotte Lenya as Jenny.
Ms. Arthur's Broadway career began in 1955 with the original musical Plain and Fancy and continued with roles in Seventh Heaven and Nature's Way, but it was her work as Yente (the matchmaker) in the original 1964 staging of Fiddler on the Roof that won the attention of audiences and critics.
Ms. Arthur won a Tony Award two years later for her performance as the boozy Vera Charles in the original production of Jerry Herman's Mame, which cast Angela Lansbury in the title role. Ms. Arthur would later reprise the role of Vera on film opposite the Mame of Lucille Ball.
Ms. Arthur would return to Broadway only two more times following Mame: in the play The Floating Light Bulb and in her one-woman show Bea Arthur on Broadway, which was nominated for a 2002 Tony Award for Special Theatrical Event.
Broadway's loss, however, was television's gain. Ms. Arthur created two of the more memorable female characters in television history: the women's liberation champion Maude in "Maude" — a character she first created on "All in the Family" — and the divorced substitute teacher Dorothy Zbornak on "The Golden Girls." She was nominated for a total of 11 Emmy Awards, winning two: one for her work in "Maude" and the second for her work on "The Golden Girls." Ms. Arthur's most recent Emmy nomination was in 2000 for her guest appearance on "Malcolm in the Middle."
In a May 2002 interview with Playbill.com, Ms. Arthur spoke about her acting influences: "My influences were [Lotte] Lenya and Sid Caesar. They affected me very strongly. The thing that she taught me was economy: I used to say, 'What do you do with your arms?' And she said, 'Never do anything unless you can't not do it.' If you're focused on something, really into it, you don't have to worry about what you're doing because it will follow through. Years ago, when I was living in New York and first starting out, I worked on [Sid Caesar's TV] show a couple of times, doing small parts — 'under fives' they called it. If you had under five lines they didn't have to pay you much money. I just watched the man. Such courage! He would do things nobody else had the nerve to do. I learned, 'Yeah, yeah — do it!'"
Ms. Arthur married director Gene Saks in 1950; that marriage ended in divorce in 1978. She is survived by her sons Matthew and Daniel Saks and grandchildren.