You may remember her as Mama Romano on the TV sitcom “One Day at a Time” or as Sid Caesar’s comic foil or as the Broadway star of any number of ‘40s musicals, from “High Button Shoes” to “Love Life.”
But Nanette Fabray likes to think of herself simply as a hoofer.
“My first preference, since you ask, is that I’m a tap dancer,” she said. “I really feel that way. I still tap dance. You have to think to do it.”
Even so, when Fabray brings her one-woman show to the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach on Sunday, for a performance to benefit Orange County’s Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled, she’ll probably do some old rock ‘n’ roll, some operatic parodies and some of the songs she introduced by Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and other songwriting greats .
“I don’t want to tell you exactly what I’ll be doing because I want people to be surprised,” Fabray said in a recent interview from her home in Pacific Palisades. “That’s the fun of my show--the surprise of it, and how it’s woven together.”
One thing Fabray can’t hide--and you can depend on it being in her show--is a sharp sense of humor. She is bound to make you laugh. That has happened from the very beginning of her career as a one-time child extra in the “Our Gang” series.
“I don’t know why I’m funny,” said Fabray, who takes her Tony and two Emmy awards just as lightly. “I have no control over it. I think it’s a great mystery why some people are funny and some people aren’t. Everyone keeps trying to explain it. If we had an answer we could all be zillionaires.”
Given her humor, explicable or not, Fabray naturally keeps landing funny roles. The latest happens to be for an upcoming TV episode of “Murder, She Wrote,” which Fabray has been filming for the past couple of weeks at Hollywood Park and in Hidden Valley.
“They’ve got me playing a ditsy lady who talks to horses,” Fabray said, “and they talk to me. When you’re funny, they give you funny things to do. I don’t have any control over that either.”
She pointed out, moreover, that she has had a fair share of dramatic roles going as far back as her teen-age years, when Max Reinhardt directed her and Robert Ryan in several Los Angeles stage productions, “The Miracle” and “Six Characters in Search of An Author” among them.
“We took those two shows on a professional tour and got as far as San Francisco before a producer absconded with the receipts,” Fabray, 68, recounted. “I came in on the tail end of Reinhardt’s career, after he had escaped from Nazi Germany.”
It was Reinhardt, an intimate of many Hollywood directors of the period, who recommended her for a movie contract. Fabray recalled that she still had braces on her teeth when she played a lady-in-waiting to Bette Davis’ Queen Elizabeth in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” the 1939 drama with Errol Flynn.
“You see serious actors trying to be funny, and it just doesn’t work,” Fabray noted. “I once saw Marlon Brando try to do comedy. It laid there like an old wet egg. But comedians are always doing good dramatic roles.”
When it comes to serious, however, nothing gets Fabray’s attention as readily as the subject of the physically challenged.
Born with a hereditary condition that led to severe hearing loss in her youth, she wore hearing aids until four operations between 1955 and 1977 finally managed to correct the problem.
“I had what was called ‘conductive loss,’ not a nerve loss,” Fabray, a San Diego native, explained. “The little bones in my ear would not conduct sound. So they replaced them with little wires, and now I can hear.”
Because of her experience, she has long devoted herself to the cause of the hearing-impaired. “I’ve been trying for years to get ‘deaf-and-dumb’ out of the dictionary,” said Fabray, a former chairwoman of the National Council on the Education of the Deaf.
“You probably don’t realize,” she added, “that the Magna Carta, which was the first great document for human rights, said the deaf had the same rights as domestic animals. That’s all they were entitled to.”
Fabray’s benefit performance for the Dayle McIntosh Center came about because of a conversation with the center’s executive director, Brenda Premo, who served with her on the National Council on the Handicapped.
“We just got to talking about a fund-raiser,” Fabray recalled. “I said I’d be glad to do it. It was as simple as that.”
Fabray, who helped establish the national council, which oversees a multimillion-dollar budget for handicapped programs, was one of its first presidential appointees. She recently retired from the council, after serving at the request of both Presidents Carter and Reagan.
Nanette Fabray will perform a one-woman show Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. The performance will be followed by a patio reception. Tickets: $35, with proceeds going to the Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled. Information: (714) 772-8285.