Bea Arthur dies at 86

'Golden Girls' star, Tony winner had cancer

Bea Arthur, whose acerbic wit and dry delivery delighted national TV audiences on such long-running shows as "Maude" and "The Golden Girls," died Saturday at age 86.

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

Arthur won two Primetime Emmys for lead actress in a comedy series, for "Maude" in 1977 and "Golden Girls" in 1988. In all, she received 11 Emmy nominations and nine Golden Globe noms.

With her dry, husky voice and domineering height, Arthur's deadpan style led her to national prominence as a guest star on "All in the Family," playing Archie Bunker's liberal cousin and political nemesis. Her acidic exchanges with Archie were so popular that producer Norman Lear spun the character off into her own show, "Maude." The politically charged sitcom ran for six years beginning in 1972, satirizing and addressing many political and social issues of that era.

In 1966, Arthur won a Tony for her Broadway portrayal of Vera Charles in "Mame," directed by her then-husband Gene Saks.

Arthur was born Bernice Frankel on May 13, 1922, in New York but was raised in Maryland. During her struggling-actress days, she paid the rent as a chanteuse, singing in nightclubs including New York's Blue Angel. A talented singer, she also made TV appearances on "The Perry Como Show" and, with comedians Wayne and Shuster, "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Arthur, along with Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty, defied conventional TV wisdom: They won high ratings with a series centered on four older women in Miami. "Golden Girls" was a long-running hit and a syndication success. A tribute to the power of Arthur's contributions, "Maude" and "Golden Girls" were canceled when she withdrew from both shows.

Before having her own series, Arthur performed extensively onstage. She won accolades for her performance, alongside Lotte Lenya, in 1955's "The Threepenny Opera" and vaulted to Broadway prominence in 1964 with her rousing portrayal of Yente the Matchmaker in the original "Fiddler on the Roof."

Two years later, she brought down the house night after night as Vera Charles in "Mame," her Tony-winning performance in the hit musical starring Angela Lansbury. Broadway applause soon gave way to sitcom laughs as Arthur took on her role in "Family."

Coincident with that, Arthur reprised her stage role in the 1974 movie version of "Mame."

Before "Family," Arthur guest starred on such TV shows as "Laugh-In," "The Mary Tyler Moore Hour" and "Saturday Night Live." Early in her career, she was a regular on Sid Caesar's "Caesar's Hour."

After the cancellation of "Golden Girls," she appeared in two movies: 1995's "For Better or Worse" and 2001's "Enemies of Laughter." She also returned to the stage with a Broadway turn in Woody Allen's "The Floating Light Bulb" and Los Angeles performances in "Afterplay" and "The Bermuda Avenue Triangle."

Along with TV programs like "Malcolm in the Middle," Arthur more recently appeared on "The Martin Short Show," "Beggars and Choosers," "Dave's World" and "Ellen." She also appeared on "Judge Judy" as a witness on behalf of a defendant associated with animal-rights organization PETA and lent her dry wit to a 1999 Friars Club roast of comedian Jerry Stiller. In 2001, she embarked on a national tour of her one-woman show "... And Then There's Bea."

Socially and politically conscious, Arthur was active in fundraising for AIDS research and animal rights.

She was married twice. After a brief marriage to Robert Alan Arthur, she married Saks. That marriage lasted from 1950-78, ending in divorce. The couple had two children, Matthew and Daniel.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.