It's like a dream come true.
Star of stage and screen, Bea Arthur has granted me what I've been dreaming of my entire life—a conversation. While not as maternal as I expected (I'd always imagined she'd give me advice about men)—hell, she was a little impatient at times—she was nonetheless polite, tolerant, and most certainly, a deep baritone.
Arthur got her show business start in the early '50s on television and stage but many of us (over 30) remember her as Cousin Maude on All in the Family—a role memorable enough after two appearances to earn her own Emmy-winning spin-off. For a decade after Maude, she worked occasionally on television and primarily the stage, before entering into what many consider to be her seminal role as Dorothy "Pussycat" Petrillo Zbornak Hollingsworth on The Golden Girls. Once again she catapulted to fame, raking in the Emmys and an E! True Hollywood Story.
Despite occasional guest appearances in TV and film, Arthur spent her 70s (in the '90s) mainly on her Los Angeles ranch—actively pursuing celebrity causes and avoiding plastic surgery. During the past five years, she has returned to stage with a touring one-woman musical show, And Then There's Bea. Catching up with her last week—she was in Salem for the show's only Oregon performance—I was granted the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream: uttering the word "vagina" to Bea Arthur.
MERCURY: So, you've got this one-woman show now. Is it enjoyable?
BEA ARTHUR: Well, I hope so.
No, I mean, for you, is it enjoyable?
Well, certainly! Or else I wouldn't be doing it.
Do you consider yourself more of a stage actress or a television star?
That's a silly question. I was raised in the theater and, as it turned out, a TV show was like performing a new one-act play. So, it was really no different.
Did you ever appear in a stage production of The Vagina Monologues?
No, but I was offered it several times.
Are you uninterested in a project like that?
No. It just seems like everybody has done it already.
Do you watch television now?
No, rarely. There are some shows I like—The Daily Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm. I watch news shows and political programs. Old movies.
Speaking of politics, what do you think of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger?
What can I say? First of all, I don't know much about him. I do know he helped us pass an animal rights bill.
So, the issue of animal rights is important to you? Are you a member of PETA?
Are you a vegetarian?
No, I'm not. But I am against all forms of animal abuse.
A question about The Golden Girls. You left because you wanted to leave a series before it became played-out?
And, how come Coco, the gay housekeeper seen in the pilot, didn't make it to the first episode?
[Laughs] He should never have been written in the first place.
I guess he would have taken away from the dynamic of the show.
It's not that he would have taken away, but then we would have had to write him in every week.
You're not from Los Angeles originally, are you?
I come from a small town in Maryland. I came to California in 1972 to begin Maude.
Do you like it there?
Oh, yes. It's beautiful and the weather's great. But I've never been to Oregon. I hear it rains all the time, but it's still beautiful. Is that so?
Yes, it's gorgeous. I've never known it to rain, though. Before we finish this, I want to commend you and ask you about two of your starring roles I especially admire. First, Circus of the Stars[aired December 8, 1985, Circus of the Stars featured then-current network television stars like Nell Carter and Alfonso Ribeiro performing circus stunts; Bea was one of the ringmasters].
You liked that show?
Oh, of course.
I really don't remember any of it—except I refused to participate in anything using trained animals.
Okay. How about your role in the Star Wars Holiday Special [also a television special, aired November 17, 1978, where Bea played a barmaid in an intergalactic tavern]?
You know something... I didn't know what that was about at all. I was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang—"Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing.
Well, that song was great.
Well, thanks. It's odd. I've gotten so many letters and requests for autographed photos from that thing. I just remember singing to bunch of people with funny heads.