Nanette Fabray, whose work with Sid Caesar on the classic 1950s TV comedy-variety show Caesar’s Hour earned her three Emmy Awards, a Tony and a lifetime of TV work, has died.
Fabray, whose early hearing problem spurred her to become a high-profile advocate for the hearing impaired, died Thursday of natural causes in Palos Verdes.
She was born Ruby Nanette Bernadette Theresa Fabares on Oct. 27, 1920, in San Diego and grew up in Hollywood, where her mother “pushed” her into show business beginning as “Baby Nan.” She sang and tap-danced on local vaudeville stages and as a teen, she won a scholarship to director Max Reinhardt‘s theater school in Hollywood which led to a contract with Warner Bros..
In 1939 she was billed as Nanette Fabares, but that changed soon after she was invited to sing at a big benefit at Madison Square Garden where newspaper columnist and future TV star Ed Sullivan was the emcee. He read her name off a card to introduce her, mispronouncing Fabares saying,
“Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to Miss Nanette Fa-bare-ass.“
“I changed the spelling of my name the next day.“
She starred on the live, hourlong NBC show Caesar’s Hour that was the successor to Caesar’s popular Your Show of Shows, whose female lead in comedy sketches was Imogene Coca.
“You can’t compare Nanette and Imogene other than that they were both amazingly talented performers.
Nanette was a different type of performer. She was what the French call a soubrette: she could sing, dance, act, and look beautiful. She had perfect timing and a sense of comedy and I knew she had scope.“
Fabray considered Caesar a “comic genius,” who, she said,
“The minute Sid and I worked together, it was as if we had worked together all of our lives. It was like a theatrical marriage. … I could almost read Sid’s mind. It was magic.”
But Fabray was dropped from the show after two seasons when a business manager asked for too much money.Fabray later played Mary‘s mother in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and played real-life niece Shelley Fabares‘ mother on Coach.
She also became an outspoken advocate for the hearing impaired. Fabray, who learned sign language, wore hearing aids until four operations between ’55 and ’77 restored her hearing. She told the Washington Post in 1984.
“If I’d known another person in the public eye who had a handicapping problem, it would have given me comfort. But I didn’t. So I kept my problem to myself. My hearing kept going down.“
She said she became “so neurotically involved with my problem, so totally self-involved, so insecure” that it destroyed her life with her first husband, David Tebet.
She received many awards for her work, including the President’s Distinguished Service Award, the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award and the Screen Actors Guild Humanitarian Award.
She is survived by her son and two grandchildren.
Below, she argues with Sid Caesar to Beethoven’s Fifth, in a classic sketch from Caesar’s Hour. Watch.
(Photos, YouTube; via L.A. Times)