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My Last Chat With Bea Arthur: Sometimes she felt like Judy Garland

In Section: NY comPRESSed » Posted In: Film And TV, Manhattan Posted By: Jerry Portwood

It's easy to get jaded after you've been interviewing folks for a little while. The celebrity publicity gambit soon loses it's cheap thrill. But when I had an opportunity to interview Bea Arthur over the phone a couple years back (to coincide with the release of Maude on DVD), I was excited and called all my friends to tell them. I recall the publicist told me to make sure I spoke loudly because she was a little hard of hearing, but the banter was just as much fun as I ever expected from an octogenarian I'd grown up watching with my mom. Although it's not as insightful as reading what Rue McClanahan thinks, here's my last chat with Bea Arthur, below:

(this originally appeared in the now-defunct Genre magazine)

It’s been more than 30 years since Maude was originally broadcast on TV, but it really tackled some controversial issues, like sex and abortion. Do you think the same show could get made today?

It seems to me—in the god knows how many years I’ve been working—the use of language has become more permissible, but the topics remain pretty much the same. But, I don’t think we could have made it without [producer] Norman Lear. He was really on a roll [after All in the Family], and no one would tell him, "No."

And Maude really pushed the female stereotypes.

Well, really, Maude was such a flake. I mean, my god! The woman was married 4 or 5 times, and she was totally different from every other wife on TV. I keep thinking of Ozzie & Harriet or Leave it To Beaver. I guess I’ve always played these "ballsy" women. But, we got away with stuff because of Norman. Nobody could do that now. It was almost half a century ago and at the time I was a stage actor; I was a child of Broadway. This was my television debut, and it was so exciting.

There’s no question that gay men revere you. But, I was talking to a straight guy about Maude recently, and he got so excited—he smiled and started spontaneously singing, "And then there’s Maude," from the show’s theme song. Why do you think the characters you’ve portrayed inspire such giddy enthusiasm in people—gay and straight?

I’ve never understood it. What sets one apart? I don’t know. What’s the difference between a gay icon and a non-gay icon? Sometimes, I feel like Judy! I don’t know how it began; don’t know how it’s grown this way. What do you think it is?

Well, you’ve always had a reputation for telling it like it is, a take-no-prisoners approach—but, always with a twinkle in your eye that you know more than you’re saying.

Well, I try not to say anything I don’t believe in. There’s so much crap in the world, and I’ve worked so many years, and I don’t know why this ever happened.

You probably also never thought you’d be talking about Maude so long after it was on TV. Do you plan on going on forever?

I am really thrilled that Maude is making in-roads again. When I was doing my one-woman show, an interviewer asked me, "You’re so old. Why are you still doing this? Why don’t you just relax?" I thought for a second, and then explained: "I’m a performer and performers never retire. We just go on. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life."

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