By Robert Simonson
15 Sep 2009
Speaker after speaker, many of them noted for their own wit, attested to Arthur's ability to get a laugh, to hold a laugh, and to leave you in stitches, whether on the stage set or at lunch. "You could milk a herd of cows in the time she was able to milk a laugh," said Norman Lear, the television producer who created the television series "Maude" especially for Arthur. "Nobody made me laugh like Bea."
"Bea said more with silence than most people said with words," said Chita Rivera, who performed with Arthur in the Off-Broadway show The Shoestring Revue in the 1950s. "You could imagine what she was thinking, and that was funny." Rivera and others told of being met with Arthur's imposing, inimitable gaze. As they described it, the combination of the actress' cocked headed, raised eyebrows and unblinking dark eyes — a look deployed many times on TV's "Maude" and "The Golden Girls" — stopped you in mid-stride and mid-sentence.
Given her height, her deep voice and her commanding presence, Arthur often took the leading role in her relationships. Actress Zoe Caldwell, an intimidating presence herself, talked of being cast in the part of "little sister" to Arthur's "big sister." Arthur would often advise Caldwell to see a certain play or movie, explaining it would "be good for you." "And then," said Caldwell, "she would come along to make sure you got the right thing from it."
One such occasion was the musical Coco starring Katharine Hepburn. "'We'll sit in the middle, in the front row,' said Bea," remembered Caldwell, "'so we can't escape. And we'll watch and watch and watch her.' And we did sit in the middle, in the front row. And we watched her and watched her. And we began to cry. And we cried and cried until the end." Caldwell paused. "I suppose it was good for us."
Arthur's sister told the capacity audience of a young girl who started smoking at age 12 and ran away at 13, whose three loves in life were, in order, "Cary Grant, show business and animals." Indeed, a representative from PETA spoke of Arthur's relentless activism for the animal rights organizations. The actress was also known for picking up strays. Television writer Charlie Hauck remembered Arthur entering the studio one day with a German Shepherd, both of them soaking wet. She explained the dog had been running along the highway unattended.
"I picture in my mind," said Hauck, "this actress, upon whom the jobs of 200 people depended, who had two children, stopping her car in traffic and running around trying to catch a dog." Arthur instructed the staff to use the dog's collar tag to find the owner of the pet. It turned out to belong to Barbra Streisand.
"She really taught me and every other woman my age how to be a feminist at a time when that was a dirty word," O'Donnell said. "And without her, I think, there would not be as many funny women on television today."
Arthur died on April 25, 2009, at age 86. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to The Ali Forney Center, one of Arthur's beloved charities (www.aliforneycenter.org).
To read Playbill.com's obituary about Arthur, click here.