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Born Bernice Frankel, on May 13 1923, BEATRICE ARTHUR began her show-business career in New York as a student in Erwin Piscator's celebrated Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research, where she studied alongside Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando. Also in the class was the actor Gene Saks, to whom Bea was married on May 28, 1950.
Because of her commanding stature, as a student she was cast in classic heroine roles. She made her stage debut in the title role of Lysistrata at Piscator's workshop in 1947. Her professional debut, as a member of the speaking chorus in The Dog Beneath the Skin, soon followed.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s Bea won roles in small theater productions such as No Exit, The Taming of the Shrew, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Love or Money, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She made headway as Lucy Brown in an off-Broadway production of Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which received splendid reviews and became a longrunning hit, and in the Ziegfeld Follies, in which she understudied Tallulah Bankhead. When not employed in the theater, Bea sang in such well-known nightclubs and played small roles on the TV shows of Steve Allen, Sid Caesar, Jack Parr, Art Carney, and Perry Como.
In 1964 she originated the role of Yente, the Matchmaker, in Harold Prince's musical Fiddler on the Roof. A year later she won her greatest Broadway acclaim in Mame, the smash musical directed by her husband and starring Angela Lansbury. Her creation of Vera Charles won her the 1966 Tony Award for best supporting actress in a musical comedy.
The 1970s and 80s introduced Bea to television audiences, first in a show-stopping appearance on All in the Family in which she played Maude, the outspoken cousin of Edith who was the complete opposite of the prejudiced, narrow-minded Archie Bunker. The response was so favorable that Lear developed a separate series; "Maude" premiered as a series in September 1972 and ran through 1978. Bea returned to television in 1985 starred as the level-headed Florida retiree Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls.