Nanette Fabray, a Tony- and Emmy-winning actress perhaps best known for her role in Norman Lear’s original rendition of One Day at a Time, has died. She was 97.
Fabray was a beloved star of stage and screen, as well as a gifted singer and tap dancer. She starred in stage musicals early in her career and later earned three Emmy awards for costarring opposite renowned comedian Sid Caesar on Caesar’s Hour. She died Thursday at her home in Palos Verdes, California, according to the New York Times.
After starting out in Hollywood, making her screen debut at the age of 19 as a lady-in-waiting to Bette Davis’ Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Fabray found major success on Broadway. She earned a Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical for 1949’s Love Life, which boasted the impressive talents of Elia Kazan as director and Michael Kidd as choreographer.
She returned to the stage throughout her life, also appearing in Broadway hit High Button Shoes in 1947 and earning another Tony nomination playing a fictional first lady in Mr. President. She also toured in several musicals, including Wonderful Town and No, No Nanette.
Fabray continued her success in musicals on the big screen, playing a memorable role alongside Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan in 1953 classic The Band Wagon, written by Comden and Green and directed by Vincente Minnelli. Fabray portrayed a playwright modeled after Betty Comden and is a part of one of the film’s most memorable numbers, “Triplets,” in which she, Astaire, and Buchanan portray infants with adult-sized heads and bodies, but stubby baby legs. She also sang another iconic number in the film, “That’s Entertainment.”
She found her most enduring success, however, on television. In the 1950s, she costarred with Sid Caesar in his follow-up to Your Show of Shows, another comedy program titled Caesar’s Hour. She quickly found success on the show, earning two Emmys in 1956 for best comedienne and best actress in a supporting role. She won again the following year for best continuing performance by a comedienne in a series. However, she had already been dismissed from the show due to a contract dispute involving her agents demanding a salary increase and equal billing — demands unbeknownst to her.
In her later career, she played a memorable string of mother roles on television, playing mother to Mary Tyler Moore on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, to Shelley Fabares (her real-life niece) on Coach, and most notably, Grandma Katherine Romano on Norman Lear’s acclaimed One Day at a Time (a role now portrayed by Rita Moreno on the Amazon reboot).
Born Ruby Bernadette Nanette Fabares on Oct. 27, 1920, in San Diego, Fabray began performing from the age of four, appearing in vaudeville and touring with comedy troupes. She changed her name after appearing in bit parts in Hollywood as Nanette Fabares.
Her adolescence was marked by academic challenges, due to an undiagnosed hearing problem that was later corrected with several surgeries. The experience led her to learn sign language and become an advocate for the hard of hearing. She worked as a spokeswoman, as well as signing along to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on The Carol Burnett Show and making sure to sign “I love you” on every appearance on the game show The Hollywood Squares.
Fabray also had another strange claim to fame: Her skin color was deemed the perfect tone for color television, and as a result, in the 1940s, she worked as a model for NBC’s demonstration of color TV. Her first husband, David Tebet, was a vice president for NBC.
She continued to work on film and television until the early 1990s, citing television as her favorite medium, and appeared on stage as recently as 2007. After Caesar’s Hour, she attempted to lead her own sitcom known as both The Nanette Fabray Show and Westinghouse Playhouse. The show only lasted for 26 episodes in 1961. Created by her second husband, Ranald MacDougall, who also had screenwriting credits on films like Mildred Pierce (1945) and Cleopatra (1963), the show followed Fabray’s character as she married a widower with two children.
In addition to her three Emmy awards, she also received the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. She remained married to MacDougall until his death in 1973 and is survived by her son, John, and two grandchildren.