“Sassy” is the word that comes easiest to mind when describing an actress like Bea Arthur and the characters she played, most notably on Maude and The Golden Girls. But sassy finally seems too small for Arthur, who died today of cancer at age 86. It connotes perkiness and feistiness; Arthur, on the other hand, exuded too much stature and presence to possess sassiness—even to need it, really. Physically (at five-nine), in her husky voice and in her imperious stature, she was a daunting presence, and even her nimblest one-liners seemed to vibrate up from deep in the earth. Sassy? She ate sassy for breakfast.
That was what made Arthur so memorable and lovable in her two best-known TV roles. But what made her a great comic actress in them was that she was able to convey a flawed, human character firing those barbs from that silver tower. She barged into America’s hearts zinging one-liners at Archie Bunker as his liberal cousin cousin-in-law on All in the Family. But spun off by Norman Lear onto her own show, she created a legendary character in her own right by showing Maude wrestling with serious issues for a TV sitcom—alcoholism, drug abuse, and famously in 1972, abortion, as her character decided to terminate a pregnancy late in her 40s. (Even today, it’s extremely rare for a TV female lead to make that choice.) What endeared Maude to us, beyond her quick wit, was the fact that she was a person with doubts, not just a paragon of liberal rectitude.
Arthur went on to The Golden Girls in the 1980s, becoming a fixture on a show that was a rare spotlight for senior actresses. But she had already broken ground in that respect, having become a TV star well into middle age. Her death today is not just a loss, but a reminder of how unfortunately rare it is for TV and Hollywood in general to give meaty lead roles to older actresses.
Here’s hoping her memory inspires older actresses after her—and, more important, the producers who cast them and the executives who greenlight their shows. Endearing and mighty, Bea Arthur didn’t just change TV. She kicked its sass.