Classic Hollywood: Bea Arthur took ‘Maude’ out of ‘Family’s’ shadow
“Cousin Maude’s Visit,” the Dec. 11, 1971, episode of the groundbreaking CBS comedy series “All in the Family,” introduced TV audiences to the unforgettable Maude Findlay, the outspoken, liberal and feminist cousin of Edith (Jean Stapleton) who took no guff from conservative Archie (Carroll O’Connor) even when he called her a “big-mouth buttinski.”
Producer Norman Lear recalled that the episode was airing on the East Coast when he got a call from the network’s programming head, Fred Silverman.
Silverman told Lear that Maude, brought vividly to life by Bea Arthur, deserved a series of her own.
And Lear couldn’t have agreed more.
Lear, whose autobiography, “Even This I Get to Experience,” was recently published, had seen Arthur in a 1955 off-Broadway show, “The Shoestring Revue.”
“She sang a Sheldon Harnick song called ‘Garbage,’'' said the multi-award-winning writer-producer-political activist. “She was standing under a streetlight at night singing about a guy who treated her like garbage. I used to do ‘The George Gobel Show,’ and I used to bring her out to guest star.”
Lear knew the tall, husky-voiced actress would be perfect as Maude, who never met a grudge she couldn’t hold. “What I learned from my own family life was that there was nothing like a relative with an ancient grudge,” Lear said. “They picked it up off the floor and across 20 years.”
Maude made one more appearance on “All in the Family” in spring 1972 with Marcia Rodd as her daughter, Carol, before CBS premiered “Maude” that fall. The first spinoff of “All in the Family” became an instant hit with audiences.
Besides Arthur, the series starred Bill Macy as her fourth husband, Walter Findlay, the owner of Findlay’s Friendly Appliances in Tuckahoe, N.Y.; Adrienne Barbeau replaced Rodd as her divorced daughter and young mother, Carol, who lived with them; Esther Rolle as the bright, no-nonsense maid, Florida, who would get in her own spinoff, “Good Times,” in 1974; Conrad Bain as Walter’s conservative friend Arthur and later Rue McClanahan as his wife, Vivian.
On Tuesday, Shout Factory is releasing the six seasons of the sitcom on DVD complete with such extras as “Cousin Maude’s Visit,” two unaired episodes of “Maude” and a new featurette with Barbeau and Macy.
Though the series premiered 43 years ago, “Maude” is surprisingly fresh and relevant. The comedy tackled such taboo sitcom subjects as mental illness — Maude was diagnosed as bipolar — alcoholism and racism. And though Maude was much closer to Lear’s own liberal political bent, he wasn’t shy in sending up liberals.
“These are human problems that we don’t seem to beat,” said Lear.
“Maude” had been on only two months when the series aired the controversial two-part “Maude’s Dilemma” episodes. The 47-year-old had learned she was pregnant and eventually made the agonizing decision that she would have an abortion. When the episodes, written by Susan Harris, aired, abortion had recently been made legal in New York but the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion was two months away.
“We had to do two episodes,” recalled Lear. “We couldn’t get it done in one. This is where program practices was helpful. If I remember correctly, there was a great guy in New York who ran program practices at the time. As a result of a conversation with me, we invented a friend of Maude’s — she was only in one show — who had four children and was pregnant with her fifth.
“She couldn’t afford the four she had, but there was no way in the world she would have an abortion. That was the strongest way we could present the other side.”
The reason Lear could discuss such hot-button topics, said Barbeau, was “that he was doing it with humor. They were funny. He was never knocking the audience over the head with some socially significant issue he wanted to advance. He was entertaining them, making them laugh and hopefully making them think a little bit.”
“Maude” was Barbeau’s first TV series. She had been playing Rizzo in the musical “Grease” on Broadway when she was cast in the sitcom.
“One of the reasons I was hired was because they saw something in me that complemented Bea’s delivery,” said Barbeau, who remained close to the actress until Arthur’s death in 2009. “Almost everything I know about comedy came from Bea. I loved her dearly. Bea set the tone. She was first the first one in the rehearsal hall in the morning and the last to leave.”
Like Arthur and Barbeau, Macy also came from the New York theater. Lear had seen him in 1966 in an off-Broadway comedy “American Hurrah” and was taken with a comedic scene in which Macy’s character was choking on a chicken bone.
“The audience was screaming,” said Macy. “It was a very funny moment.”
After doing a short guest spot on “All in the Family” as a cop, he was cast as long-suffering Walter, who during the course of the series is forced to come to grips with his drinking problem and even falls into a depression when he loses his job.
“Bill Macy and Bea together were just priceless,” said Lear.
Macy recalled one evening shortly after the series began when he and Arthur were sharing a slow elevator at CBS Studios on Beverly Boulevard.
“We were strangers at the beginning,” said Macy, who would bring the actress pastrami sandwiches every Friday. “One night Bea and I were on the elevator going down and it took forever. In the middle of the silence she looked at me and said, ‘Bill, you are a rock. Despite your lack of humor, you’re a rock.’ I never forgot that.”
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