Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan rank among TV’s all-time great comic matchups, first on the groundbreaking ’70s sitcom Maude, and later, during seven seasons of the Emmy-winning ensemble comedy The Golden Girls. (Check out a couple of embedded YouTube clips at the end of this Q&A.) EW.com phoned McClanahan at her Manhattan home this morning to get her memories about her long-time friend and co-star, who died yesterday in Los Angeles at age 86. McClanahan described Arthur as a gentle, almost timid person who changed America’s perception of what it meant to be an older woman, who finally achieved her greatest career goal at age 79, and who could tell a dirty joke with the best of ‘em.
What did you learn about acting from Bea Arthur?
What I got attached to, as an actress, was her impeccable timing. And I loved playing scenes with her. She taught me, by watching her, even back during Maude, to be outrageously courageous as a comedienne, to go out on a limb, to go farther than I’ve ever dreamed of going. [On The Golden Girls], Blanche had to say and do things that Rue found difficult. And it would always be Bea who said [deepens voice to perfectly imitate Arthur] "Oh say it! It’s funny!"
What was she like off-camera?
As a friend she was giving and loving to me. She was a very close, quiet, rather timid person, very gentle. I saw someone say something once that they didn’t mean to be a cutting remark, but it hit her wrong, and she immediately burst into tears. That was not seen very often, but those emotions were right under the surface.
It’s interesting to hear that, because I think a lot of fans just assumed she was as tough as Maude, as gruff as Dorothy.
Not just the public! When I first worked with her on Maude and came back to New York, actors descended upon me and said "Oooh! What was it like? Was it scary working with Bea Arthur?" I said "Good heavens! Anything but!" That height — she was 5’10” flat-footed — and that deep voice, and that manner she was able to summon up, made people think she would be difficult. But she wasn’t.
Any interesting quirks?
[On Golden Girls], Bea always sat in thesame chair at rehearsals. Always. And she always had to have me on herright, and Betty [White] and Estelle [Getty] across the table from her. And we couldnot change seats from year to year, or even from week to week.
How did Bea feel about her status as a feminist icon?
Of courseshe was aware of it, but I tell you what meant something to Bea:Acting, performing, playing comedy and doing it well.
What did Bea mean to women of her generation? Maude and The GoldenGirls both tackled a lot of issues older women face, and did so with acandor that we don’t always see in Hollywood.
I think, in both ofthose shows, we really did change the perception of a woman’s role. Idon’t think anybody thought that it was okay to be a feminist back whenshe was doing Maude. And I’m sure that [show] released a lot ofinhibitions. I know The Golden Girls certainly did because I’ve got fanmail saying "Thank you for allowing me to act and dress like I feel."Because in those days, when you were over 50, you were supposed to bewearing certain types of clothes and behaving a certain way. And womenwere writing saying "Thank you, thank you, thank you for the freedom,for the release, for the permission." And I’m sure Bea got that samekind of fan mail, too.
Later in life, Bea didn’t shy away from racier fare. She did anepisode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, she participated in the PamelaAnderson roast…
She did quite a few roasts. She came from thetheater, remember. And the theater tends to be more bawdy, more grittythan television. She understood that kind of humor. She had a one-womanshow on Broadway — I’m so glad she got to do that. And she told somepretty raunchy jokes, live on stage. In fact, a couple that were just abit too much for me! [Laughs.] But boy she could tell a dirty joke. Ohmy God, she was funny!
It couldn’t have been easy pulling off a one-woman Broadway show at that stage of her life.
Thatwoman was [about to turn] 80. She looked like a million bucks. What abeautiful costume she had on. And that’s all she wanted to do, she toldme way back when we were doing Maude: "All I want to do is sing infront of an orchestra." She did Broadway musicals before she ever gotpicked up to do that All in the Family episode that was the beginningof her television career. And she was always pissed off that she was soold when it happened. When I went out to do Maude, I was about 38 andshe was about 50, I guess, and she said "it just makes me so mad thatit came so late in life!" [Laughs.] She’d been trying all of her youngacting career to get some fame and attention.
What was Bea’s lasting contribution to TV history?
What’s any greatstar’s lasting contribution? What’s Lucille Ball’s? I don’t know howto put answers like that into words. I suppose perhaps the thing shedid the best and the most of was make people laugh.
More on Bea Arthur:
Beatrice Arthur, ‘Golden Girls’ star, dies at 86: Friends and colleagues pay tribute
Ken Tucker pays tribute to ‘Bea Arthur: A magnificent Maude, a Golden Girl, a mighty woman’
EW toasts ”The Golden Girls”’ 20th anniversary: Reminiscing with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White
Roundtable Q&A with TV’s Golden Girls