“God will get you for that, Walter.”
Nobody could do more with these words than Beatrice Arthur as Maude Findlay on the marital warpath. She could slingshot them in fury or release them in a chilling deadpan, but however she delivered them you could be sure they’d hit their mark with a prizefighter’s pop.
All the tributes that will be lavished on Arthur, who died Saturday at 86, will extol her impeccable comic timing. Her ability to detonate a joke, to momentarily harness a punch line before releasing at full force, brought her Emmy-winning success in two groundbreaking sitcoms -- Norman Lear’s 1970s classic “Maude” and “The Golden Girls,” launched in 1985 and no doubt making somebody crack up in rerun land as you’re reading this.
Television critics can pay appropriate homage to the place of these shows in small-screen history. But I can’t help thinking about the stage origins of those unerring instincts for comedy, the hours upon hours of performing in theaters large and small that taught Arthur better than any videotape what worked and what didn’t. Nor can I keep myself from mourning a death that in some respects marks the passing of an entertainment era.
John Lahr, the drama critic for the New Yorker, once described Elaine Stritch as “possessing an absolute radar in terms of audience reaction that the newer generation simply lacks the opportunity in the theater to develop.” Arthur was granted that same glorious opportunity to develop her craft. Funny enough, Stritch and Arthur had the same early teacher, the German director Erwin Piscator, whose students at the New School for Social Research included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis.
Piscator was a seminal influence on Bertolt Brecht, whose “The Threepenny Opera” with Kurt Weill occasioned Arthur’s breakthrough, when she was cast as Lucy Brown in the heralded 1954 off-Broadway production with Lotte Lenya. Arthur, by this time, had already been performing regularly, thanks to a theater culture that knew a good bass-baritone voice and imposing build when it saw them.
“Let’s face it,” Arthur once quipped, “nobody ever asked me to play Juliet.” But she didn’t lack opportunities, and it wasn’t long before Broadway would turn her into a star. In 1964, she played Yente the matchmaker in the original company of “Fiddler on the Roof.” And shortly after that, Arthur scored her most popular stage success as the sloshed Vera Charles in the 1966 Broadway premiere of “Mame,” directed by her then-husband, Gene Saks. That performance, played opposite Angela Lansbury, earned Arthur a Tony, and she later reprised the role in Saks’ 1974 movie version, starring Lucille Ball.
The point of this history is that by the time she turned up as Maude on “All in the Family” in 1971, she already had a middle-aged appearance and an impressive career in the theater. No wet-behind-the-ears actress could have barged into the Bunker household and bossed around Carroll O’Connor’s formidable Archie. The comic heat between these heavyweights, who had worked together in the theater in the late ‘50s, was supercharged. I can still hear the note of revenge in her voice when Maude, Edith’s cousin who has come to nurse the Bunkers back to health, explains to an aggravated, flu-ridden Archie the nature of the breakfast she has prepared for him: “Cream of Wheat with cheese. It’s light, but it binds.”
I confess to being something of an aficionado -- OK, a fanatic -- of 1970s sitcoms. The news of Arthur’s death came after I had just received the newly released first season of “Rhoda” on DVD and had spent the wee hours of the morning in admiration, watching Valerie Harper dig into her character’s insecure skin and Nancy Walker deploy her jokes with all the crispness of a vaudevillian.
What struck me about “Maude,” when I watched the first season on DVD about two years ago, is how each episode, taped before a studio audience (a form of television Arthur was completely at home with), is like a mini-stage play. The series is still hilarious. Arthur knows that the only thing funnier than unbridled anger is unbridled exasperation, and you sense her thriving on the immediate response.
But Arthur is not just clowning around. She’s boldly and robustly acting, exploring different aspects of her character in conflict with the world around her. Lear’s trailblazing social conscience was an ideal fit for Arthur’s long-standing desire to sink her teeth into something substantive.
While Maude fought for progressive causes, Arthur held out for quality work. Her indelible gifts found another great part in “The Golden Girls’ ” Dorothy, the retired teacher living with her mother and two friends.
Dorothy was softer than Maude, less battle-ready. But as brought to life by Arthur, she could rise to any challenge with a clobbering comeback or one of those intimidating stares that could wipe the smile off a statue.
Not every great television comedian emerged from the theater. But when I watch someone of Arthur’s caliber, I am instantly reminded of how such a piquant talent was cultivated and can’t help wondering whether we will ever see its like again.