Bea Arthur steps through the door of her hotel suite into a sitting room, a tall, frail-looking figure, dressed in black. Her white hair is perfectly coiffed, the makeup on her taut, thin face dramatic. She stands still for a moment, as if she has just made an appearance on a stage and is awaiting applause.
"You look wonderful," I tell her, when she approaches to shake my hand. Behind her stands a makeup artist who is on hand while she does publicity for her one-woman show, Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends, which opened this week at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre and runs until Dec. 8.
Arthur motions to the makeup artist with one sweep of her hand, as if to say "It's all her doing." Then she looks at me and The Globe photographer, also a woman, and with her head held high in a regal fashion and tilted back slightly so she appears to be peering down the length of her nose, she drawls in her deep voice, "Well, you could use her, too, if you wish."
How very Maude.
For anyone who grew up on the hit CBS series, Maude, starring Arthur in the title role as a prototype feminist of the seventies, this sort of caustic remark is expected. Who doesn't remember her character, Maude Findlay, heavier then and always dressed, it seemed, in a long caftan sort of getup, turning to Bill Macy, who played her long-suffering (and fourth) husband, Walter, and saying, "God will get you for that," in her trademark deadpan, whenever he did or said something that annoyed her?
But when I laugh in reaction to her comment, she looks at me blankly. She wasn't intending to be funny. Bea Arthur doesn't seem to be aware of when she's being oh so Bea Arthur.
Well, it wouldn't be the first surprise of the interview.
What I would come to see, after only half an hour of talking to Arthur, is how much we project our own selves, our younger, former selves mostly, onto the celebrities whom we perceived to be speaking for us and our generation at the time. Maude was Betty Friedan with a sense of humour; the Gloria Steinem of the living room, who became more iconic than they ever could because she spoke to us weekly and wittily under cover of make-believe. I am forever 13, worried about impending womanhood, when I think of Bea Arthur.
But she is not completely like Maude. Nor is she always as biting as Dorothy Zbornak, the character she played on The Golden Girls, opposite Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty.
Arthur would cry at one point in our interview, with no warning, and reveal something about her motivations as an actress, why she's still at it, up there on the stage every night, flying around the world on tour, at the age of 79.
We begin, though, with what she calls "my Cinderella life on TV," which started the day Norman Lear, the creator of All in the Family,called her up. "He was a very close friend," recalls Arthur, who sits bolt upright in her chair, her long, graceful hands folded over one another on her lap. "He asked me to come out and play a part on one episode of All in the Family." That was Maude, a cousin of Archie Bunker's wife, Edith, and an upper-middle-class matron. An impassioned liberal, she was the perfect foil to Archie's blue-collar bigotry.
Based, in part, on Frances Lear, the late wife of Norman Lear and a militant feminist who went on to found a now-defunct magazine for older women called Lear, in 1988, the character "was the only person who ever spoke back to Archie Bunker," says Arthur. "It created some kind of furor," she continues. "because the next thing that Norman knew, the president of CBS said, 'Let's give her her own show.' So [in 1972]we took the character and what I was wearing and made Maude. It was extraordinary, because woman all over the country regarded me like Joan of Arc, and I was really so unprepared and fairly disinterested."
Which doesn't mean she didn't enjoy doing it. "Norman felt we could tackle any subject," she says, recalling episodes in which her character dealt with abortion, discussed pornography, marijuana laws, alcoholism, women's liberation and race relations. "I think we tackled everything but hemorrhoids," she says dryly.
Arthur had no ambition to be a TV star. In fact, when Lear first approached her about the guest role on All in the Family, she put him off for weeks. Born Bernice Frankel, Arthur was always dramatic, both in presence and temperament -- by 12, she had reached her adult height of 5 foot 9, and in high school in Cambridge, Md., she amused her classmates with imitations of Mae West -- but her heart belonged to Broadway. Growing up in a family of three girls, she set off to pursue acting in New York, after graduating from the Franklin Institute of Science and Arts in Pennsylvania, where she trained to be a medical-laboratory technician, of all things. Once in New York, she enrolled in German-born Erwin Piscator's legendary Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research.
"Let's put it this way," remarks Arthur, when asked about the roles she has played in the theatre, "I was never asked to play Juliet from the time I was 10, which had to do with my height, and I have a very deep voice." Her big break came in 1954, when she appeared in a high-profile production of The Threepenny Opera. Known for her singing talent, she has appeared in several musicals and originated the role of Yente, the matchmaker, in the critically acclaimed Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. She also appeared opposite Angela Lansbury in Mame, for which she won a Tony in 1966.
The movie version of the musical in 1974, starring Lucille Ball, was one of the few movies Arthur has ever been offered. And even that one, she did reluctantly. "The real reason I did it," she says, almost under her breath as she skips through recollections of her career, "is because I was flushed with success, having had a season of Maude, and I was married to the director at the time [Gene Saks] He said, 'As my wife, you owe it to me to do it.' " The movie was a flop. Arthur has since divorced Saks.
Feminism interested her even less than television and film. "Look," she says sternly, "in the theatre, you're never aware of a difference economically between what women get and what men get. I found [feminism]all too strident."
At the height of Arthur's popularity in Maude, Betty Friedan "freaked out one time because she expected me to be somewhere for some talk and I couldn't be there," she recalls with a sigh.
Arthur sounds gruff, I know, and she is. There is a detached quality to her responses, an imperiousness almost, especially in the slight pause she allows just after a question, as though she's considering whether to deign it with a response.
Even on paper, she seems as tough as Maude and Dorothy. She lives alone in California with two Dobermans, I read in one previous profile. Her two adult sons, who were adopted, live near by. She is decisive. She left both hit shows at the height of their popularity: Maude after six years and The Golden Girls after seven. Both were cancelled after she left. "The last episode of Maude had me winning some political position -- I can't remember what -- and Norman and the network wanted to continue and base me in Washington with a whole new cast except for the husband. I didn't know what we could prove by doing that. She had run her course. It was time to leave," Arthur says.
With Golden Girls, which stopped production in 1992, there has always been pressure to do a reunion show, she says. "Everyone says, 'Oh you must do it. People will love it.' And I say, 'Absolutely not!' How could we top some of the good work we did?"
It isn't until I ask why she continues to work that I see beyond the caustic Bea Arthur exterior. Her one-woman show, in which she sings songs, accompanied by Billy Goldenberg on the piano, and talks about her career, began three years ago when she worked up a few musical numbers for an AIDS benefit. In 2002, it was nominated for a Tony Award.
Arthur looks at me stonily at first as I ask the question and lets me pickle in her silence for a beat or two before saying, "First of all, I don't feel old." Another pause. Then, with a gentle prodding, she talks about a song she performs in her show, "It's at the very end. The song is called A Chance to Sing." She looks off to the middle distance and begins to sing the lyrics in a rough, low voice: "We're like birds who are perched on the limbs of a tree/ When the time is right we simply fly away/ That other birds come and take our places/ But they won't stay/ We come and go/ It was always so/ And so it will always be."
Suddenly, tears well up in her eyes. "The thing is," she says, turning her gaze to me again, "while we're here, we have a chance to sing." She wipes at her eyes, apologizing for her show of emotion. "I get teary," she explains. "In other words, be ballsy, make a point and have an interest."
Arthur glances at The Globe photographer, who has been shooting her throughout the interview. "Are you taking pictures now?" she asks. She flicks at her hair and dries her eyes some more. "Give me a minute," she says, waving one hand to put a halt to the picture-taking. She takes a moment to compose herself, and then with a polite smile, looks up at me again for the next question.