Arthur, 86, died peacefully at her Los Angeles home with her family at her side, family spokesman Dan Watt said. She had cancer, Watt said, declining to give further details.
With an arms-length of theatrical credits on her resume including the’70s musical “Mame,” for which she won a Tony, Arthur wandered into series television when she was close to 50, creating a sensation as the outspoken liberal matriarch Maude, a character she had created on “All in the Family.” The series brought her an Emmy and ran in syndication for decades.
The Norman Lear-created “Maude” dealt with hot-button issues including rape and abortion and still managed high ratings, which was probably only possible in the climate of the ‘70s.
Then, in the mid-1980s, Arthur scored again as part of “The Golden Girls” troupe. She played the show’s putative ringleader Dorothy, who lived with her mother and two widowed girlfriends in a Florida retirement community. It was as big a hit as “Maude” and even more lucrative in the syndication after-market.
In both series, Arthur’s dominating height and deep, gravelly voice allowed her to take command. Her crackerjack comic timing and theatrical experience came in handy in delineating the personae of Maude and Dorothy, though the former was the more controversial character.
Like her “Mame” co-star Angela Lansbury, Arthur achieved mainstream popularity on television after a long and fruitful career on the New York stage.
Born Bernice Frankel in New York on May 13, 1926, she moved with her family to Maryland as a teenager. She studied at Blackstone College in Virginia and received her degree as a lab technician from Franklin Institute of Science and Arts. But she had little patience for hospital work and moved to New York to study in Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School, where she was awarded the lead in “Lysistrata” in 1947.
That same year Arthur made her professional debut Off Broadway in “The Dog Beneath the Skin.” She worked constantly Off Broadway in title roles in “Yerma,” “No Exit,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” “The Owl and the Pussycat,” “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” “Yes if for a Very Young Man,” “The Credits” and “Heartbreak House,” all before 1950. She also appeared on TV in “Once Upon a Time.”
It was in this class that she met Gene Saks, the actor and later director, whom she married in 1950. He shared her life for the next three decades. In the early ‘50s she was part of the Atlantic City Circle Theater, a stock company.Her breakthrough role was as Lucy Brown in Marc Blitzstein’s 1954 adaptation of “The Threepenny Opera” Off Broadway. She followed with Ben Bagley’s “Shoestring Revue” in 1955. Her Broadway debut came the same year in the ill-fated musical “Seventh Heaven,” after which she returned to “Threepenny Opera.” She understudied Tallulah Bankhead in “Ziegfeld Follies,” which folded before reaching Broadway.
Arthur was back on Broadway in 1957 in another short-lived enterprise, Herman Wouk’s comedy “Nature’s Way.” More successful was Burgess Meredith’s Off Broadway production of “Ulysses in Nighttown.”
Over the years, to supplement her earnings in the theater, Arthur was a chanteuse in such clubs as the Blue Angel, Ruban Bleu and One Fifth Avenue. She also had minor guest roles in TV variety shows such as those of Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Perry Como.
In 1959 she made a vague attempt at being a regular on “The George Gobel Show” (where Lear was producer and director) but lasted only two shows before moving back to New York. She returned in the political revue “Chic,” drawing good notices. She also picked up her first movie role as a WAC in “That Kind of Woman” with Sophia Loren.
Weary from only intermittent success and being in her mid-30s, Arthur worked infrequently for a time, appearing in an Off Broadway revival of “The Gay Divorcee” and in Elaine May’s play “A Matter of Position.” But by 1964 she was back on stage in Harold Prince’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” Two years later she scored her biggest triumph as Vera Charles, Mame Dennis’ lush of a girlfriend, in the musical “Mame,” directed by her husband. It brought her a Tony for supporting actress.
In 1971, Lear wrote the part of Maude, an outspoken woman and cousin of the Edith Bunker character on “All in the Family,” for her. Maude’s liberal clashes with the bigoted Archie Bunker were so successful that a spinoff was created for debut in 1972. It was an immediate hit.
And it almost immediately drew fire for its presentation of Maude’s pregnancy and subsequent abortion. But the show was a huge ratings hit, and “Maude” frequently addressed subjects such as race, drugs and rape.
In 1977 Arthur picked up an Emmy.
After “Maude” left the air, Arthur appeared in specials and in guest appearances. In 1973 she starred in an ill-conceived film version of “Mame” starring Lucille Ball. She also appeared in Mel Brooks’ “History of the World Part I.”
In 1985 came “The Golden Girls,” which, despite its older demographic, was a major television success for the rest of the decade.
After “Golden Girls,” Arthur made brief appearances in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Malcolm in the Middle.”
Divorced from Saks, she is survived by two sons and two granddaughters. No services were planned.