Today is the birthday of the late Bea Arthur (Bernice Frankel, 1922-2009). Her sit-com Maude (1972-1978) was a big hit of course; I’m sure no one my age or older has forgotten it. And yet you will admit it has been largely overshadowed by her even bigger hit The Golden Girls (1985-1992). The Golden Girls is undeniably awesome — sit-com magic and ground-breaking in its way. Yet in retrospect Maude was even more ground-breaking (and personally it played a much larger role in my life. I was a kid when it came out. I’ve probably seen every Maude episode, but only a few Golden Girls episodes, as much as I enjoy it).
Maude was a spin off of the monster hit All in the Family (1971-1979). The character of Maude Findlay was introduced on an All in the Family episode in 1971. Maude was Edith Bunker’s liberal feminist cousin from suburban Westchester. Stage veteran Arthur made a splash as the latest of Archie Bunker’s foils and so was given her own show the following year.
Arthur’s Broadway credits included Threepenny Opera (the cast recording is one of my favorite soundtrack albums), Mame and Fiddler on the Roof. I think of her as a giant. Not just because she was a very tall, stately woman but because she was a “big” performer. I study every performance of hers intensely, and I often call her performances on Maude a master class in comedy acting. Her timing is exquisite — music. Her comic mask is a gift from God.
Look at those eye-brows. She’s like a Muppet! I often think (like the best sit com actors) the joy is often in the reaction, the pause just before she speaks. You just know what she is about to say will be arch and cutting and funny. Comparing her to a drag performer is inevitable but perhaps a little unfortunate — I can’t imagine not hating such comparisons if I were a woman. But nonetheless she went for it. That GRANDIOSITY. She owns the space. She is a dynamo.
And on Maude she had just a terrific cast supporting her. Bill Macy (whose name made me much confused when William H. Macy later came on the scene) plays Maude’s much shorter, noisier husband, Walter who owns an appliance store.
It is Macy’s presence that brings a certain ethnic confusion to the show. Are the Findlays Jews or WASPs? Well, Maude has to be a WASP, I guess, she’s Edith’s cousin, but Arthur and Macy (not to mention all the writers and producers) are Jewish, and the Brooklyn raised Macy certainly doesn’t behave like a WASP.
And we have the unambiguous WASPs next door to demonstrate that behavior, for contrast. There’s Arthur, played by Conrad Bain, who is hilarious here, prior to his talents being wasted in the lame, inexplicable Diff’rent Strokes a few years later. And the always sexy Rue McLanahan (later her costar on Golden Girls) plays Maude’s friend Vivian, who marries Arthur. McLanahan also came to the show via All in the Family, where she played a swinger in a notorious episode. Adrienne Barbeau played Maude’s sexually liberated daughter Carol. (Barbeau’s capacious mammaries were to become two of the biggest stars on the show). In the first season, Esther Rolle played the maid Florida, a sort of a post Civil Rights updating of the 50s character Beulah who put Maude’s theoretical liberalism to the test. Florida, in turn, got her own spin-off series Good Times, which we wrote about here. Rolle was replaced on Maude by Hermione Baddeley, as the rebellious, lazy Cockney Mrs. Naugatuck (who named herself after the town in Connecticut).
I don’t think I’m off the mark when I say Maude was more ground-breaking than The Golden Girls. The Golden Girls is awesome for capturing a demographic who’d only appeared at the fringes of most television, senior citizens, and exploring their perspectives and issues. But Maude brought to American living rooms serious hot button issues that had never been talked about in such a forum, as well as some facts of life that had never been broached on television either. And since I was a very young child at the time, the show was my introduction to these topics as well. I think it’s quite accurate to say that (for better or worse) I learned about such things as abortion, menopause, depression, psychiatry, vasectomies, feminism, extra-marital sex, infidelity, “working things out in a marriage” and much else from Maude. It was all done with an upper middle class sophistication which was a bit exotic to me with my working class upbringing and values. And I need hardly add that Maude has one of the best (funniest, hippest, catchiest) sit-com theme songs of all time. I’m sure to be singing it all day now.