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‘Golden Girls’ star was a late TV bloomer

LOS ANGELES — Beatrice Arthur, the tall, deep-voiced actress whose razor-sharp delivery of comedy lines made her a TV star in the hit shows “Maude” and “The Golden Girls” and who won a Tony Award for the musical “Mame,” died Saturday. She was 86.

Arthur died peacefully at her Los Angeles home with her family at her side, family spokesman Dan Watt said. She had cancer, Watt said, declining to give further details.

Arthur first appeared in the landmark comedy series “All in the Family” as Edith Bunker’s loudly outspoken, liberal cousin, Maude Finley. She proved a perfect foil for blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), and their blistering exchanges were so entertaining that producer Norman Lear fashioned Arthur’s own series.

In a 2008 interview with The Associated Press, Arthur said she was lucky to be discovered by TV after a long stage career, recalling with bemusement CBS executives asking about the new “girl.”

“I was already 50 years old. I had done so much off-Broadway, on Broadway, but they said, `Who is that girl? Let’s give her her own series’,” Arthur said.

“Maude” scored with television viewers immediately on its CBS debut in September 1972, and Arthur won an Emmy Award for the role in 1977.

The ratings of “Maude” in the early years approached those of its parent, “All in the Family,” but by 1977 the audience started to dwindle. A major format change was planned, but in early 1978 Arthur announced she was quitting the show.

“It’s been absolutely glorious; I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said. “But it’s been six years, and I think it’s time to leave.”

“Golden Girls” (1985-1992) was another groundbreaking comedy, finding surprising success in a television market increasingly skewed toward a younger, product-buying audience.

The series concerned three retirees — Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan — and the mother of Arthur’s character, Estelle Getty, who lived together in a Miami apartment.

The interplay among the four women and their relations with men fueled the comedy, and the show amassed a big audience and 10 Emmys, including two as best comedy series and individual awards for each of the stars.

In 1992, Arthur announced she was leaving “Golden Girls.” The three other stars returned in “The Golden Palace,” but it lasted only one season.

Arthur was born Bernice Frankel in New York City in 1922. When she was 11, her family moved to Cambridge, Md., where her father opened a clothing store. At 12 she had grown to full height, and she dreamed of being a petite blonde movie star like June Allyson. There was one advantage of being tall and deep-voiced: She was chosen for the male roles in school plays.

Bernice — she hated the name and adopted her mother’s nickname of Bea — overcame shyness about her size by winning over her classmates with wisecracks. She was elected the wittiest girl in her class. After two years at a junior college in Virginia, she earned a degree as a medical lab technician, but she “loathed” doing lab work at a hospital.

Acting held more appeal, and she enrolled in a drama course at the New School of Social Research in New York City.

During this time she had a brief marriage that provided her stage name of Beatrice Arthur. In 1950, she married again, to Broadway actor and future Tony-winning director Gene Saks.

After a few years in off-Broadway and stock company plays and television dramas, Arthur’s career gathered momentum with her role as Lucy Brown in the 1955 production of “The Threepenny Opera.”

In 2008, when Arthur was inducted in the TV Academy Hall of Fame, Arthur pointed to the role as the highlight of her long career.

“A lot of that had to do with the fact that I felt, ‘Ah, yes, I belong here’,” Arthur said.

More plays and musicals followed, and she also sang in nightclubs and played small roles in TV comedy shows.

In recent years, Arthur made guest appearances on shows including “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Malcolm in the Middle.” She was chairwoman of the Art Attack Foundation, a nonprofit performing arts scholarship organization.

Arthur is survived by her sons and two granddaughters. No funeral services are planned.

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