Nanette Fabray, Comedic Foil to Sid Caesar on TV, Dies at 97

Nanette Fabray, a dancer and stage actress whose work on Sid Caesar’s pioneering television comedy shows influenced a generation of comediennes, has died. She was 97.

She died Thursday at her home in Palos Verdes, California, the New York Times reported, citing her son, Jamie MacDougall.

Unlike some actors of the 1950s, Fabray eagerly embraced the relatively new medium of television rather than consider it second-fiddle to a film career.

She was a Vaudeville child star billed as “Baby Nan” while growing up in Hollywood, started a long Broadway career at 21 and appeared with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the 1953 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical “The Band Wagon.”

Her television break came in 1954 when Caesar was looking for a new leading lady to succeed his partner, Imogene Coca.

Coca and Caesar had delighted audiences on Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” from 1950 to 1954. Coca then moved on to her own show, and for his follow-up production, “Caesar’s Hour,” Caesar chose Fabray as his new sidekick.

“Nanette was a different type of performer,” Caesar wrote in “Caesar’s Hours,” his 2004 memoir. “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.”

Contract Dispute

Fabray lasted just two seasons with Caesar before a contract dispute ended the affiliation. She later said her representatives, without her permission or knowledge, had caused the dispute by insisting that she be granted equal billing and pay.

Like Coca before her, however, Fabray had earned lasting fame for her sketches with Caesar, many of them built around the squabbles and stresses of husbands and wives. In one well-known sketch, they mouthed and mimed an argument set to a Beethoven symphony.

Fabray won three Emmys for her two years of work with Caesar. Their sketches presaged the family-focused situation comedies that would dominate prime time for decades.

“I think every funny thing you see on television today was taken from the Caesar shows,” Fabray said in a 2004 interview with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation. “Most of the sitcoms are based on the way Sid put them together.”

Influential Performer

One was “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” in which Mary Tyler Moore co-starred as suburban housewife Laura Petrie. In a 1993 television interview, Moore said, “There was a lot of Nanette Fabray for me in the character that I played, especially when it came to the crying scenes.” Moore died in 2017.

Fabray tried to parlay her success in a show of her own, “The Nanette Fabray Show,” which lasted only one season. She later had recurring roles on “Love, American Style,” “One Day at a Time” and “The Love Boat,” and she played the mother of Moore’s character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Fabray became a longtime advocate for the disabled after suffering from a progressive ear disorder that threatened her hearing — and by extension, her career. She had four surgeries to stem the abnormal growth of bone in her middle ear. She was a member of the National Council on the Handicapped.

Ruby Bernadette Nanette Fabares was born Oct. 27, 1920, in San Diego and grew up in Hollywood. She was the youngest of three children of Raul Fabares, who worked for Southern Pacific Railroad, and his wife Lily. They divorced before she turned 10.

Tap Dancing

Fabray, who changed the spelling of her name to ease pronunciation, said she initially “hated show business” before relenting to her mother’s wishes that she perform.

At 3, she portrayed Miss New Year’s Eve of 1923 at a Los Angeles theater. She learned to tap dance, which she said was always her primary love. She started appearing as an extra in movies as a young girl, and, as a teenager, landed a six-month contract at Warner Bros.

After moving to New York City at 18, she performed in Broadway musical comedies, appeared on live television dramas and had a guest spot on Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.”

Fabray said she realized soon after beginning work on “Caesar’s Hour” that she had found a rare partnership. “I could almost read Sid’s mind,” she said. “It was magic.”

She said she always regretted the contract dispute that ended their alliance: “I would have stayed with him forever.”

Fabray was married to David Tebet, a television executive, from 1947 until their divorce in 1951. She later married Hollywood screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, who died in 1973.

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