"She taught every woman my age how to be a feminist," said Rosie O'Donnell

By Stephen M. Silverman
September 15, 2009 07:00 AM
Ron Galella/WireImage

Golden, indeed: Heavyweights from the stage and TV gathered at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre Monday to pay tribute to the late Beatrice Arthur, mixing tears with loud laughs – and ribald recollections that would have been bleeped had the 2½ ceremony been broadcast on TV.

Instead, speaking live before a near-capacity house, Rue McClanahan told of the time her Golden Girls costar opened in her own 2002 one-woman Broadway show and graciously invited McClanahan and her husband, Morrow Wilson, to the opening-night performance and party afterwards.

Admitting Arthur – who died of cancer in April, at 86 – often wasn’t at her best when she was drinking, McClanahan said an intoxicated Bea told Wilson when he introduced himself to her, “Rue, I love.” But when McClanahan quoted Arthur’s description of another costar on Golden Girls (“Betty’s a c—“), an audible gasp ricocheted through the crowd – before it erupted into the longest and heartiest laugh of the afternoon.

“I am sure that’s because laughter lingers, and no one made me laugh like Bea Arthur,” said Arthur’s Maude producer, TV titan Norman Lear. “I have spent most of my life in the company of extraordinary laugh-makers, performers and writers, killers of the art, but Bea Arthur had me laughing in nooks and crannies of my body, places I didn’t even know existed.”

A rep from PETA, extolling Arthur’s love of animals, affectionately remembered her emotional reaction to being told she would receive the organization’s lifetime achievement award – from no less than Alec Baldwin.

After shedding a few tears, Arthur blurted out, “God, I want to f— him” – a recollection that even had the afternoon’s dignified host, Angela Lansbury, in stitches.

“She really taught me and every other woman my age how to be a feminist at a time when that was a dirty word,” said Rosie O’Donnell, whose introduction to Arthur came when O’Donnell assaulted the veteran TV star in an off Broadway theater and sang the entire title song to Maude, after which Arthur embraced her.

“Without her,” said O’Donnell, “I think there would not be as many funny women on television today.”

Arthur’s grown sons Matt and Daniel Saks painted a portrait of a warm and loving mother, while TV daughter Adrienne Barbeau recalled Arthur as generous enough to hand over punchlines to her Maude costars, yet brash enough not to keep her personal opinions to herself.

Telling of the time she and Arthur both attended a small theater production in West Los Angeles, Barbeau said that at intermission Arthur announced in her booming baritone that the show they were witnessing was “the worst piece of s— I’ve ever seen,” but that she couldn’t leave the theater “because everyone in it is a friend of mine.”