Around that time, working in television on "Caesar's Hour" with Sid Caesar on NBC, she said she learned to be "outrageous" by doing "under fives" -- under five lines -- in sketches. During the 1950s, she appeared many times in various roles on Kraft Television Theatre.
Next she was part of the original 1966 production of "Mame" and became a lifelong friend of Lansbury.
"The two of us together were dynamite, you know?" Lansbury said on CBS' "Sunday Morning" in 2002. "I mean, we really managed to just take off like birds."
Although she had wanted the part of Mame, Arthur was talked into taking the gal-pal role by husband Saks, who was directing the musical. But she didn't accept being second banana quietly, using humor to make her point.
According to "Balancing Act," Martin Gottfried's 1999 biography of Lansbury, Arthur told people that the original name of the show was "Vera" and that it was changed only because composer Jerry Herman couldn't find rhymes for that name. Then she would dramatically pause, Gottfried wrote, and say, "Steve Sondheim could have."
"She was perfect for Vera," Gottfried concluded.
Indeed, when "Mame" opened on May 24, 1966, the New York Post's Richard Watts wrote that Arthur's Vera was "a portrait in acid of a savagely witty, cynical and serpent-tongued woman who is at once a terror, a scourge, the relentless voice of truth and a pleasure to have around."
And Time magazine said Arthur "delivers a line as if someone had put lye in her martinis."
When "Mame" came to the screen, Lucille Ball, who replaced Lansbury as the lead character, insisted on having Arthur as Vera, even though Arthur was upset that Lansbury had not gotten the title role.
"She was the greatest Vera Charles in the world," Ball told the Hollywood Reporter. "We wrapped the whole production around [her]."
The film, also directed by Saks and riddled with production problems, was a critical flop.
Arthur did few movies, among them "That Kind of Woman" (1959) and "Lovers and Other Strangers" (1970).
In 2002, "Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends," a one-woman show she developed with composer Billy Goldenberg, appeared on Broadway for two months. The show also toured the U.S., Canada, Australia and elsewhere.
"I simply wanted to see if I had the guts to just come out and be myself, which is something I never felt very comfortable doing," Arthur told her audiences in the show.
In addition to performing, Arthur supported animal rights and AIDS research. She had lived in Los Angeles for many years.
Before marrying Saks, Arthur was married briefly to playwright Robert Alan Aurthur, from whom she acquired part of her stage name. "Bernice" became "Beatrice" because she always hated her given name, and she simplified the spelling of his last name.
Arthur and Saks, who married in 1950 and divorced in the late 1970s, had two sons, Matthew and Daniel, who survive her, as do two grandchildren.
Luther is a former Times staff writer.