Bea Arthur: 'Angela Lansbury? She has a mouth like a longshoreman'

Bea Arthur makes her West End debut - aged 80 - this week. As Veronica Lee discovers, the ex-'Golden Girl' won't be mincing her words...

Sunday 14 September 2003 00:00 BST

It's not many performers who make their West End debut at the age of 80, but that is what American actress Bea Arthur is about to do. Her one-woman show, with songs, anecdotes and stories from a career spanning 50-odd years, opens at the Savoy Theatre tomorrow and will include reminiscences about The Golden Girls, the sitcom that made her a huge star in her sixties.

Arthur is suffering severe jetlag when we meet at her hotel and, to be honest, I'm concerned that she will barely make it to the Savoy, let alone perform on stage for 90 minutes. But she's raring to go. "I'll be over it by then," she says in her distinct, gravelly voice - sadly not the product of a dissolute life, but her genes. "My sister speaks exactly the same," Arthur says. I am also rather disappointed to find the tumbler from which she takes frequent sips contains not hard liquor, but her favourite drink, iced tea.

Arthur says she is nothing like her Golden Girls character, Dorothy, the waspish smartass with an ever-ready putdown. "Anything I say sounds assertive. I was very shy and withdrawn as a child but people know me as these assertive women. They are not me. What is me in those characters, though, is fighting injustices and pricking bubbles."

Arthur was born to a Jewish immigrant family in New York City and her family moved to Maryland during the Depression. She started out as a lab technician, but then realised she wanted to act and went back to the city to go to drama school. Arthur's a classically trained actress, but her career really took off when she appeared alongside Lotte Lenya in Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera in 1954, then starred in the original Broadway run of Mame with Angela Lansbury in 1966. She later appeared in two of the most successful sitcoms on American TV, Maude and Golden Girls.

I ask why she has only now decided to do a one-woman show. "It's been a long time coming," Arthur says. "Billy Goldenberg [the show's pianist] and I met 20 years ago and he first suggested it then. But I always said no, because it's such a big deal to put a show together. And besides, I can't say I'm a singer - I'm an actress who can sing.

"I realised I had spent the majority of my adult life doing two characters - Maude from 1972-'79 and Dorothy from 1985-'92 - and I really didn't know what I wanted to do after Golden Girls. I knew what I didn't want to do - any more sitcoms, or wait for the next great role that might never come. I thought, to hell with it."

The content of the show evolved by accident. "After we did a song at a Broadway tribute, Billy and I were asked to do an Aids benefit in Los Angeles. Two weeks before, we found out we weren't a part of the show, we were the show. So we just went out and did some songs we liked and I told a few jokes.

"Two of the songs are his compositions and I'm doing them because they are fabulous." There's also a song from The Threepenny Opera, the show that made her famous. "I don't do a number that I sang in the show, it was one of Lotte Lenya's, 'Pirate Jenny'. I learnt so much from watching her perform."

Arthur also performs a song that she was taught by Angela Lansbury, who became a close friend after they worked on Mame. "She was a class act and a real joy to work with. When I first met her I thought I was meeting this patrician, classically trained actor, but she has a mouth like a longshoreman. No kidding. She loved telling dirty limericks. She started in British music hall and taught me 'What Can You Get A Nudist For Her Birthday' and it's really saucy."

She also talks about her life and career. "But in a light vein," Arthur says. "I don't talk about my alcohol addiction." The delivery is so impeccable that it takes me a moment to realise that she's joking. She then reels off a list of people she's worked with - Tallulah Bankhead, her beloved co-stars on the Golden Girls, and her drama-school contemporaries Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and Tony Curtis - whom she mentions on stage. "One of my best lines is about Tony. And it's true." Not for the first time in our chat Arthur won't tell me the gag, saying "You'll have to wait for the show." Ah, to be 80 and still a tease.

'Bea Arthur At The Savoy': Savoy Theatre, London WC2 (0870 164 8787), to 18 Oct

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