Bea and Betty: TV's Golden Girls Bea and Betty

In the world of prime-time television, where lithe young beauties abound, these gutsy women are showing all of us that mature can also be attractive, amusing and sexy.

By Cliff Jahr

 

Television has always worshipped youth, which is one reason stars who once scored in their own hit series can seldom do it again. As for successful comebacks by female stars nearing sixty--it's never been done.

Until now, that is. Bea Arthur of Maude fame, and Betty White, best known for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, co-star in NBC's surprise hit, The Golden Girls. From the sitcom's launching, it's been one of this season's most popular new shows.

Bea will be sixty in May, and Betty allows as how she herself is "probably a little bit older." But to see them pause for a rare breather during their recent New York promotional tour, there's no telling their ages.

Handsomely turned out and peppy as debutantes, both women glow with health and optimism. Dewy skin does hint of help from cosmetic surgery, and yes, Betty had "puffs" trimmed from her eyes ("which need doing again," she says brightly), while Bea had a second face-lift after losing thirty pounds. But so what? They're entitled. They've been through a lot since their sitcoms went off the air more than six years ago.

Both lost husbands, one to cancer, one to divorce. Both failed twice in new series, and until recently both shared nests with elderly and disabled mothers (and as we went to press, the Journal learned that Bea's and Betty's mothers died peacefully, within days of each other). After surviving all that, how do they feel about the widespread notion that for women, fifty if fatal? Riled by such nonsense, they nearly jump up off the sofa. "That old stereotype again," growls Bea. "It's ridiculous! I have just as much stamina as I ever did."

"I'm thrilled to be this age and this healthy," adds Betty. "Why, I sleep four hours maximum. Last night, I was out discoing at Regine's until three A.M., and I still got up at six."

"Betty looks so great," Bea teases, "because she was professionally made up for a TV interview this morning. Oh sure, we're over fifty, but to quote Rhett Butler [Betty joins in], 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn'". Both women laugh and clasp hands.
They are as unsinkable as the characters they play on The Golden Girls--widows who have teamed up with a man-crazy divorcee, played deliciously by Rue McClanahan (Bea's former neighbor in Maude). All three, nearing sixty, share a house in Miami and are joined by Bea's salty-tongued eighty-year-old mom, played by Estelle Getty.

Since the show shares its locale with the often violent Miami Vice, it has been nicknamed Miami Nice. But it's not always all that nice, at least not for the staid or the squeamish. Subjects range from casual sex and ethnic stereotypes to hot flashes and Maalox.
"It's honest," explains Betty. "The show's about real life. Probably if young girls discussed taboo subjects the way we do, the show would be bleeped. They'd be accused of doing it for shock value. But we four ladies have been around the Horn several times."
Taboo topics are not new to Bea Arthur. They were Maude's stock-in-trade: women's lib, abortion, marijuana, race relations and even, in one 1973 episode, a debate over her first face-lift. "Everybody thought I had really had one," she says, "but not yet. It was only makeup. I wore the Lucille Ball picker-upper, which I discovered when we did the movie Mame together. The makeup man asked if I wanted to wear 'lifts.' He said, "If you don't, you're going to look thirty years older than Lucille Ball.' When Lucille saw me, she said that I looked terrific. 'I ought to,' I told her. 'I'm wearing lifts and I can barely move my jaw--my skin is so tight that I can't close my eyes!"

While Betty and Bea have a lot in common, their origins differ greatly. Bea started out as Bernice Frankel from New York City, the middle daughter of Jewish immigrants from Austria and Poland.

"I was born in New York City," she explains, "but at a very early age--"

"We were all born at a very early age," quips Betty.

"Betty, Bet--ty," moans Bea facetiously. "I give you credit when they're funny, but--"

"No, no," pleads Betty, "it keeps my skin clear. Jokes fester if I don't get them out. I apologize."

"We'll talk about that," mutters Bea. "Anyway, at a very early age, my parents moved to Cambridge, Maryland. As a girl, I wanted to be Ida Lupino--oh, I adored that little blond floozie who got involved with bad people in roadhouse movies. But instead, I became a lab technician, influenced, I suppose, by the medical students I dated."

Bea's destiny, however, would owe more to Ida Lupino. She returned to New York at twenty-one to study acting and soon attracted a cult following in theaters and nightclubs. In a dozen roles, her statuesque height (five nine and a half), deep voice and talent for both comedy and drama made her always the standout--never the star.

One big break came in 1964, when she appeared in Fiddler on the Roof. Bur her role was cut drastically to favor Zero Mostel's. She soon got a second chance, co-starring in the musical Mame, for which she won raves. Then, in 1971, a guest appearance on All in the Family as Edith Bunker's loudmouthed cousin Maude proved screamingly funny, and Bea caught the eye of CBS network executives.

The result was the Norman Lear spin-off Maude, on which, for six years, she played the well-off suburban matriarch with outspoken liberal views. It was a role not unlike the real life she'd been living in Bedford, New York, as a working wife and mother of two sons.

While stardom was finally hers, her twenty-nine-year marriage to director Gene Saks came apart when Maude ended. Bea attributes the failure of the marriage to the demands of success and a lull in Gene's career.
"I never dreamed success would be so difficult," sighs Bea, inhaling deeply on a cigarette. "In a way, it emasculated Gene. Suddenly, people chased me down the street for autographs, and there he stood, the world's most brilliant director, unrecognized. But when you're doing a series, there's no time to examine relationships. Your personal life's on the back-burner."
In contrast, Betty's seventeen-year marriage to TV game-show host Allen Ludden seldom faced career conflicts. But it, too, ended sadly when he died almost five years ago at sixty-two. Ludden was TV's first highbrow game show host, beginning with G.E. College Bowl in the fifties, followed by Password in the sixties and seventies. The two met when Betty appeared on Password, winning the game--and the emcee.

"When he was trying to get me to marry him," she recalls, "Allen promised, 'Someday I'll build you a house by the ocean in Carmel.' He knew it was place I loved best. Well, halfway through the construction we learned he had inoperable cancer. We finished the house in a couple of years, but after eighteen months, Allen had a stroke, and he died the next year. I don't get up to Carmel much, but in my mind's eye, I often run away to my garden there with the whales and the otters rolling in the surf right below."

She was born Betty Marion White in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, an only child, of English, Danish and Greek heritage. Her parents moved to Southern California when Betty was still in diapers, but her manner suggests a heartland upbringing. "Remember," she explains, "my parents were very Midwestern."

Starting out in radio in 1949, she switched to television two years later. It wasn't long before her quick humor crowned her queen of the game-show guests, and she was a TV commentator on many a Tournament of Roses and Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

The big break came in 1973 with her role as Sue Ann Nivens, the man-eating TV chef with a poison-apple smile, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. "They were looking for someone who could be sickeningly sweet," she says frankly. "The producer wanted a 'Betty White type,' and someone asked, 'Why not get Betty White?' Mary and I were friends, so if I flunked the audition, it would be awful. But that one-shot lasted five years."

Since then, Betty and Bea each tried to return in a new series, but their efforts sank without a bubble. No longer typecast, however, they received some surprising offers. As a result of Betty's work for animal welfare and her book, Betty White's Pet Love: How Pets Take Care of Us (Pinnacle Books, 1985), she was offered roles as a veterinarian.

"And I got law enforcement scripts," says Bea, bewildered. "Me playing a uniformed patrol cop, a judge, a mayor, even a plainclothesman's mother. Then along came Golden Girls," she adds, "I really didn't want to go back to work because I was so tied up with my mother. But my agent said get off your rear and get on with your life."

Until Golden Girls began, Bea and Betty cared full-time for their mothers. Betty's mother, Tess, was eighty-six and mentally sharp when she died, but she had suffered from, among other things, painful disintegrating spinal disks.

Bea's mother, Rebecca, was eighty-five and "just the opposite," she notes. "Mom's body was strong, but she was totally blind, totally deaf, totally miserable. She wanted desperately to die and had begged me to help her, but what could I do? I'd read the Betty Rollin book (Last Wish, Linden Press, in which Rollin tells how she helped her cancer-stricken mother commit suicide). Unfortunately, in this big world, euthanasia is legal only in the Netherlands. When I spoke to her doctor about it, he said no, his hands were tied, and he got angry with me.

"This is a lady who used to do the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, and then she became just a shell of nothing. I felt she was dead before she died. But I could not put her into a nursing home, so I had round-the-clock nurses."

"I wouldn't let mine go either," adds Betty. "It was heartbreaking, but we did still have quality time together. I'd fix her breakfast, sit with her, give her the medication and insulin shots every morning at seven-forty-five. You have to rotate shots, so I'd say cheerily, 'Okay, where do you want them today? Left center finger, right hip, or left middle tummy?' You've got to joke about it; you've got to keep your sanity. What's the alternative? Fortunately, Mother didn't get sick until after Allen died. I would have been torn apart trying to care for the two people I loved most."

"Betty had really been running a convalescent home for many years," says Bea sympathetically.

Betty smiles wanly and looks away. "And I was the only little girl in the world who never wanted to grow up to be a nurse," she says, in a very tiny voice. "You know, Lucille Ball once said, 'You're never old until your mother dies, because to her you'll always be a little girl.'"

"Even though," continues Bea, "you finally turn into the mother, and she the child. I'll never forget when we had to do a musical number on the show, like from the Ziegfeld Follies, coming down a flight of stairs. I was hysterical with fear that I would fall. I said, 'Oh God--just get me through this one night, and I'll do anything.' Then Betty turned and said to me, 'Listen, honey, things could be worse.... We could be home now."

Their smiles fade.

Ironically, just four days after her mother's passing. Bea had to rehearse the next Golden Girls script, in which her sitcom character's mother has a heart attack. "That was pret-ty rough," says Bea hoarsely, "but death was a blessing, and work actually helped me get through the next week. Then came the delayed reaction, when I first walked into her empty bedroom--before then, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. And that's when I wept."

Despite the recent heartache, Bea and Betty are quick to point out that, like their mothers, they owe a lot of their joy in life to their children. Betty raised her husband's three children from his previous marriage. Now they're all grown, busy with careers and settled elsewhere, but they're still close to their stepmother. Martha, thirty-five, is studying law in Boston; David, thirty-six, has a Ph.D. and is currently working on a book in a Philadelphia; and Sarah, thirty-three, is a San Francisco audiologist.

"I raised them from the time they were young teens," notes Betty, "while at the same time trying to solidify a new marriage. For me, an only child who had never really been exposed to children, it was an interesting experience."

Bea's two sons are following in their parent's theatrical footsteps in New York. Matthew, twenty-four, is an actor, a graduate of the noted Neighborhood Playhouse, and Danny, twenty-one, is studying stage design at Sarah Lawrence College. "They showed talent from the moment they entered this world," notes Bea proudly. "Matt's impatient with the beginning struggles every actor goes through, and Danny's so eager to graduate this June. He interned last summer with [top theatrical designer] David Mitchell and was raised from fifty dollars to four hundred dollars a week." She starts to blink back tears, "My God, I'll start weeping if I go on about my boys."

"I get the feeling you're a little fond of them," Betty says softly.

"I cannot control my emotions," says Bea. "Say something funny, and I'll laugh til I wet my pants; something sentimental, I'll cry."

"I don't know about the crying," says Betty, "but there is something about enjoying the emotion of grief. Oh, I can fool people, but I can't--well, do you know what I mean?"

As a matter of fact, no. Betty White's public persona is puzzling; her wicked sense of humor wears an innocent smile. Is she always this sweet?

"Oh, I have a very quick temper." She laughs, snapping her fingers. "I can really blow. I throw things. There's a hole in my bedroom door where I flung the car keys. I break eyeglasses, and I have a fork at home--from my good silver--that I bent double. Somehow, God always puts that one at my place setting. Afterward." She adds, switching to a tone of exaggerated sincerity, "I'm so-o sorry, you know? I figure as far as bad moods go, why take them out on other people? You might as well try to seem cheerful, and pretty soon you'll become cheerful."

"At the same time," counters Bea, "everyone in L.A. says, 'Have a nice day,' and it's so phony. Ugh!"

"But here in New York," replies Betty, "you can say something like, 'My mother is dying,' and everybody says, 'No problem.'"

The past has been bittersweet, but what about the future? Would either woman consider remarrying? "No way," says Betty, 'thank you very much. I had the best; there's no use in trying to top that. I do have a dear friend, though, whom I've known for thirty-five years and see on a regular basis, Rudy Behlmer, the film historian."

"I have some friends who are also divorced," says Bea, "and maybe there are a couple of others I haven't yet been formally introduced to whom I'd like to go to bed with. Why not? Ask anyone. I've always believed in free love. I think I was the first feminist without even knowing it. At age four, I questioned why women marry.

"Marriage makes sex respectable," Bea continues, "which then makes it unexciting. Everybody knows that, I think, but nobody says it. A person gets bored with the same partner, and for me, there has to be continual change. I guess I'm still into the truck driver thing. You know, the people you sleep with are the people you'd never bring home to the folks.

"I don't feel there's anything lacking in my life," she continues reflectively, "but for a year, I didn't allow myself to think about where I was going because of the situation with my mother, I've never had a whirlwind social life. I've always been a recluse--staying home in the big, beautiful house we built, cooking Chinese food, gardening and keeping three dogs. I hate makeup and dressing up, and I always go barefoot."

She pauses to frown, then starts to smile, "Come to think of it," she says, raising her eyebrows, "I guess I'm happy. Because I've never been bored or unhappy in my life. Maybe I'll have to go back to an analyst about that."



*article from Ladies' Home Journal, February 1986


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