b. Bernice Frankel, 13 May 1926, New York, USA. A stylish, droll, acid-tongued actress, comedienne and singer, with an attractive dark-brown voice, Bea Arthur came to prominence playing the role of Lucy Brown in Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera - the second US version - which opened off-Broadway at the Theatre De Lys in March 1954, and ran for 2, 706 performances. She then appeared in Ben Bagley’s 1955 Shoestring Revue, and in the same year took the part of Mme. Suze in Seventh Heaven, a musicalized version of the Oscar-winning 1927 silent film classic, which starred Janice Gaynor and Charles Farrell.
In 1960 Arthur was off-Broadway again, this time as Hortense in a brief revival of the 1932 Fred Astaire musical Gay Divorce. In direct contrast to that disappointment, Arthur’s next appearance on Broadway in 1964 was in one of the best-loved musicals of all time, Fiddler On The Roof. She created the role of the village matchmaker, Yente, in a production that ran for 3, 242 performances. Another blockbuster followed in 1966 when Arthur won a Tony Award for her portrayal of the superbly bitchy Vera Charles in Jerry Herman’s Mame. Her duet with star Angela Lansbury, ‘Bosom Buddies’ (Mame: ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you for years, you should keep your hair natural like mine.’ Vera: ‘If I kept my hair natural like yours, I’d be bald.’), regularly brought the house down. Unfortunately, although the number was filmed as part of the 1974 film version of Mame, in which Arthur recreated her role opposite Lucille Ball, it was cut from most prints. In 1968, she led a cast that included Carl Ballantine and Bill Callaway in A Mother’s Kisses (1968), with a score by Richard Adler, but it folded out of town. She was married to Gene Saks, the show’s director, for some years. He also directed Generation (1965), Half A Sixpence (1965), I Love My Wife (1977) and Rags (1986), among others. Apart from Mame, Arthur made several more films, including That Kind Of Woman (1958), Lovers And Other Strangers (1969) and History Of The World: Part One (1981). She has also appeared extensively on television. Her telling performances inAll In The Family led to Maude, her own series (1972-76), and eventually to the part of Dorothy in The Golden Girls situation comedy (1985), which was still being enjoyed by television audiences round the world in the 90s.