Bea Arthur's Back! 'Deadpool' Cameo, Animal Collective Song and New Secrets of the 'Star Wars Holiday Special'

Deadpool with Bea Arthur inset - H 2016
Courtesy of 20 th Century Fox; Photofest

A version of this story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Fox’s $600 million box-office juggernaut Deadpool is introducing a new generation to the unlikeliest of heroines: Bea Arthur. The face of the Golden Girls star, who died in 2009 at age 86, appears on a tank top worn by the Marvel antihero, played by Ryan Reynolds.

Fans of the comic are already aware that the vigilante (real name Wade Winston Wilson) harbors a crush on the star, a plot point dreamed up by Deadpool writer-creator Fabian Nicieza.

"When I started writing the monthly Cable & Deadpool series in 2004, it had been the first time I'd written Deadpool in 10 years, so I wanted to recapture his voice immediately, as well as his loneliness," explains the 54-year-old Nicieza, a longtime Arthur fan who can sing every word of the Maude theme song.

"So the opening of Cable & Deadpool No. 1 is Wade sitting alone in his apartment watching TV for multiple days straight. During one panel, the TV is talking about naming 'The World's Sexiest Woman' and he shouts out, 'Bea Arthur!' It turns out to be Halle Berry and that upset Wade to no end," Nicieza says.

Why Arthur? "I was simply channeling Deadpool's very idiosyncratic — or insane — point of view on things, plus alluding to his co-dependent relationship with [his elderly woman sidekick] Blind Al," Nicieza continues. "Who would Wade consider sexy? In that moment, it would be the opposite of how we view someone like Halle Berry, and Bea was the first celebrity that came to mind."

When pre-production on the movie began, it was Reynolds, also an executive producer on the film, who reached out to TV set designer Daniel Saks, 51, one of Arthur’s two sons, for permission to use her image.

Says Saks: “I was on Dharma & Greg on Stage 21 at Fox when Ryan was on Stage 20 doing Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. He was always a nice guy, and the fact that it was him gave it more weight with me and my brother, Matthew. We thought, ‘Why not?’”

This isn't the first time Arthur has found her way into a hugely popular genre universe. Saks has vivid memories of visiting his mother on the set of 1978's Star Wars Holiday Special, the ill-conceived TV tie-in to the blockbuster franchise that creator George Lucas famously hated and attempted to bury.

"They were having a lot of problems with the rubber masks and the smoke and how long the scene took," Saks says of the sequence featuring Arthur, in which she serenades the drunken customers at the Mos Eisley Cantina. "So they had a nurse running around feeding oxygen into the various aliens to make sure they didn’t pass out."

"Between takes, the Cantina band — you know how they had those big, bulbous heads? — they’d reach up and squeeze the bulb of their head to evacuate the used oxygen. And then they’d let it reinflate with fresh air. It was a really funny sight, those guys pumping their heads," Saks recalls.

It was married producers Ken and Mitzie Welch — longtime musical directors for The Carol Burnett Show and old friends of Arthur's — who enlisted the star for the project. But if Arthur regretted doing it, she never let on. "She'd forget scripts, she did so many shows," her son says. "Once it was filmed she moved on to the next thing."

He cites one guest appearance from a 2001 episode of Futurama in which Arthur voiced "the Femputer," a giant computer that led the all-female inhabitants of the planet Amazonia. 

"It was hysterical, perfect casting," Saks recalls. "It probably took her a couple hours to record it. But when I reminded her of it she told me she had no recollection. She said I was crazy and that she didn’t know what I was talking about." Despite this, Saks says his mother remained mentally sharp until the very end.

These days, Arthur's renewed zeitgeistniness doesn't end with Deadpool: Her voice — in character as The Golden Girls' Dorothy Zbornak — is sampled in a new song called "Golden Gal" by the experimental indie group Animal Collective. Saks says the family was not approached for permission to use the clip in the song.

(Members of Animal Collective had no comment for The Hollywood Reporter as to how the clip was procured or why they chose to use it.)

Saks, who now works as lead set designer on NBC's The Carmichael Show, thinks Arthur would get a kick out of her cameo in Deadpool because of “the sardonic sarcasticness of the character.” 

But, he points out, that was merely his mother's TV persona. In real life, she was "a lot softer and warmer and more gentle. She was actually a very sweet, gentle person."