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Actress Nanette Fabray, who won Tony and Emmy awards, dies at 97

Actress Nanette Fabray, who won Tony and Emmy awards, dies at 97
Nanette Fabray in undated photo (Studio handout)

Nanette Fabray, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical comedy star whose work with Sid Caesar on the classic 1950s TV comedy-variety show "Caesar's Hour" earned her three Emmy Awards and a lifetime of television work, has died. She was 97.

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 Estates, her son, Jamie MacDougall, said.

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Fabray had won a Tony for best actress in the 1949 musical "Love Life" and appeared in the 1953 MGM musical "The Band Wagon" — in which she, Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan performed the famous "Triplets" number as "three little unexpected children" — before becoming the female lead on "Caesar's Hour" in 1954.

The live, hourlong NBC show was the successor to Caesar's popular "Your Show of Shows," whose female lead in comedy sketches was Imogene Coca.

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But when "Your Show of Shows" ended in 1954 and Caesar and Coca launched their own separate TV shows, Caesar had to find a new leading lady to complete the comedy ensemble that included "Show of Shows" veterans Carl Reiner and Howard Morris.

Nanette Fabray stars with Oscar Levant in "The Band Wagon."
Nanette Fabray stars with Oscar Levant in "The Band Wagon." (Cinecon)

In his 2003 memoir "Caesar's Hours," Caesar praised Fabray and said, "You can't compare Nanette and Imogene other than that they were both amazingly talented performers.

"Nanette was a different type of performer," wrote Caesar, who died in 2014. "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, "encouraged me to try new avenues of funny."

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In a 2004 interview for the Television Academy Foundation's Archive of American Television, Fabray said she signed on for her first "Caesar's Hour" show as a guest.

"The minute Sid and I worked together, it was as if we had worked together all of our lives," she recalled. "It was like a theatrical marriage. … I could almost read Sid's mind. It was magic."

Fabray played wife Ann opposite Caesar's Bob Victor in "The Commuters," the recurring domestic sketches set in the suburbs.

But "Caesar's Hour" displayed Fabray's talents in a variety of ways. In one nearly six-minute silent sketch set to Beethoven's 5th Symphony, she and Caesar memorably mime an arguing couple.

In 1956, Fabray won an Emmy as best actress in a supporting role for "Caesar's Hour" — as well as an Emmy for best comedienne. The next year, she won an Emmy for best continuing performance by a comedienne in a series for "Caesar's Hour."

But Fabray was dropped from the show after two seasons when a business manager who handled her money had a meeting in Caesar's office and, without her knowledge, made unreasonable demands for her contract for the third season.

It wasn't until she talked to Caesar at a tribute for the comedian a couple of years later that they both discovered what had happened.

Fabray later starred in a short-lived, 1961 situation comedy on NBC — "Westinghouse Playhouse starring Nanette Fabray and Wendell Corey" — in which she played a Broadway star whose new husband, a widower living in Beverly Hills, has two children.

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The series was created by Fabray's second husband, screenwriter Ranald MacDougall. He died in 1973.

Fabray, who received a Tony nomination in 1963 for her performance in the musical comedy "Mr. President," made numerous guest appearances on TV variety shows — as well as appearing regularly on game shows such as "Password" and "Hollywood Squares."

She also played Mary Tyler Moore's mother in two episodes of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," had a semi-regular role as Bonnie Franklin's mother on "One Day at a Time" and played real-life niece Shelley Fabares' mother on four episodes of "Coach."

She also became an outspoken advocate for the hearing impaired.

Fabray, whose own undiagnosed hearing problem affected her grades in high school, was in her early 30s and appearing in a production of "Bloomer Girl" in Chicago when she found she no longer could hear the pit orchestra.

A doctor she found in the phone book predicted she'd lose her hearing in about five years.

She was diagnosed with otosclerosis, a disorder in which excessive growth in the bones of the middle ear interferes with the transmission of sound.

"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," she told the Washington Post in 1984. "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.

Fabray, who learned sign language, wore hearing aids until four operations between 1955 and 1977 restored her hearing.

Over the years, she served on the boards of the National Council on Disability, the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities and the Better Hearing Institute, among others.

She received numerous honors for her work, including the President's Distinguished Service Award, the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award and the Screen Actors Guild Humanitarian Award.

The youngest of three children, 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. As a teenager, she won a scholarship to director Max Reinhardt's theater school in Hollywood. That led to a short contract with Warner Bros., where she had small film roles.

A 1939 graduate of Hollywood High School, Fabray became a performer in a musical revue in Los Angeles called "Meet the People," which toured across the country and landed in New York City in late 1940.

She was billed as Nanette Fabares at the time. But that quickly changed.

As she recalled in her 2004 TV archive interview, she was invited to sing at a big benefit in Madison Square Garden. Newspaper columnist and future TV legend Ed Sullivan was the emcee. As Sullivan read her name off a card to introduce her, he mispronounced Fabares by saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to Miss Nanette Fa-bare-ass."

Recalled Fabray: "I changed the spelling of my name the next day."

Acclaimed conductor Artur Rodzinski later heard her singing in "Meet the People" and sponsored her to study opera at the Juilliard School. But she studied there for only a few months.

By then, she was appearing with Danny Kaye in the hit "Let's Face It!" and she chose musical comedy over opera.

Fabray went on to appear in a string of Broadway musicals over the next decade, including "By Jupiter," "Bloomer Girl," "High Button Shoes," "Love Life," "Arms and the Girl" and "Make a Wish."

"I did 12 Broadway shows — just loved it," she said in the TV archive interview. "I had a wonderful, exciting career onstage."

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She is survived by her son and two grandchildren, Kylie and Ryan.

McLellan is a former Times staff writer.

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