Nanette Fabray, Charming Singer, Dancer and Comedienne, Dies at 97

Nanette Fabray - Photofest - H 2016
Courtesy of Photofest

Nanette Fabray - Photofest - H 2016

The Emmy and Tony winner starred opposite Sid Caesar, was delightful in 'The Band Wagon' and played Bonnie Franklin's mom on 'One Day at a Time.'

Nanette Fabray, the effervescent comedienne who won three Emmy Awards for playing opposite Sid Caesar on Caesar's Hour, only to leave the classic NBC sketch series because of a misunderstanding, has died. She was 97.

Fabray, who later portrayed the mother of Bonnie Franklin's character on the CBS sitcom One Day at a Time, died Thursday at her home in Palos Verdes, California, her son, Jamie MacDougall, told The New York Times.

Fabray also appeared as moms (of Mary Tyler Moore's character) on CBS' The Mary Tyler Moore Show and (of real-life niece Shelley Fabares' character) on ABC's Coach. And on a 1977 episode of CBS' Maude, she was memorable as a high-school friend of Bea Arthur's character who had a stroke.

An excellent singer and tap dancer — she received a lesson or two from Mr. Bojangles (Bill Robinson) — Fabray won a Tony Award for best actress in a musical for starring in Love Life (1949), directed by Elia Kazan and choreographed by Michael Kidd.

She also was delightful on Broadway in High Button Shoes and received another Tony nomination in 1963 for playing the wife of the commander-in-chief (Robert Ryan) in Mr. President.

In the MGM classic The Band Wagon (1953), an energetic Fabray sang "That's Entertainment" and "Louisiana Hayride" and appeared in highchairs with Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan in a clever "Triplets" number. She also played Jean Simmons' confidant in Richard Brooks' The Happy Ending (1969).

Fabray had guest-starred on Caesar's previous comedy program, Your Show of Shows, and when he split up with Imogene Coca (she went on to do her own show), he approached Fabray about working with him on Caesar's Hour.

"I was signed to do the first show as a guest, and the minute Sid and I were together it was as if we had worked together all of our lives," she recalled in a 2004 interview with the Archive of American Television.

"I could almost read Sid's mind, it was magic. He felt it, the audience felt it, and apparently he got a lot of letters saying, 'Have Nan come back.' And so I did another show and another and I would up being with Sid week after week after week."

In 1956, Fabray received Emmys for best comedienne and best actress in a supporting role, then picked up another trophy the following year for best continuing performance by a comedienne in a series.

But unknown to her, a man who had handled some of her business affairs called the show's producers and demanded that her contract for the third season be renegotiated to include co-star billing and money equal to what Caesar was making.

When the producers refused, Fabray's rep told her nothing about the demand and said that Caesar wanted her off the show. The actress was devastated. It wasn't until years later, at an industry testimonial for Caesar, when they both discovered what had happened.

"Sid and I never got over the fact that we were both brutalized by that one terrible incident," she said. "I regret it to this day. I would have stayed with him forever."

She was born Ruby Bernadette Nanette Fabares on Oct. 27, 1920, in San Diego, but she and her family moved almost immediately to Hollywood. She had an older brother and sister, and her parents divorced when she was about 8.

Her mother wanted her to pursue show business, so she learned to tap dance. As a 3-year-old, she played Miss New Year's Eve 1923 in a burlesque house and toured as “Baby Nan” in a comedy troupe led by silent star Ben Turpin, who taught her his specialty — how to cross your eyes.

(Contrary to reports over the years, she never performed in the Our Gang comedies.)

In 1939, Fabray graduated from Hollywood High School, where her classmates included future actress Alexis Smith, but it was a struggle as her hearing gradually deteriorated.

"I didn't know I was hearing less and less in the classroom," she said. "I didn't know that when the teacher turned to the blackboard to write something, that she or he was still talking. By the time I was in my senior year, I flunked everything."

Fabray had otosclerosis, a disease of the bones of the middle and inner ear. Told she would eventually lose her hearing, she studied sign language, but four surgeries managed to repair the problem.

Still, she became an advocate for the hard of hearing. On an installment of The Carol Burnett Show, she sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" while using sign language, and she signed "I Love You" each time she appeared on the game show The Hollywood Squares.

After high school, Fabray signed a Warner Bros. contract, but her option was dropped after she had bit parts in the 1939 films The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and A Child Is Born.

She joined the cast of Meet the People, a revue that toured the country and made it to New York, and she appeared on Broadway in the 1941 musical comedy Let's Face It opposite Danny Kaye. Later, she replaced Celeste Holm in Bloomer Girl.

Also in the 1940s, Fabray was on call for a couple of years to work as a model for NBC's demonstration of color television. Whenever the network wanted to show off its budding technology, she was called into a studio to do a show (she said her skin tone was just right for color TV), and the broadcast was sent to the upstairs office of top executive David Sarnoff.

Fabray, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1987, was married to Ranald MacDougall — who had screenwriting credit on such films as Mildred Pierce (1945) and Cleopatra (1963) — from 1957 until his death at age 58 in 1973.

MacDougall also created the short-lived 1961 NBC series The Nanette Fabray Show, on which his wife starred as a woman who marries a widower with two kids.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.