Frances Bay dies at 92; veteran character actress


Frances Bay, the sweet, gentle housewife who became a successful actress in middle age, appearing in more than 50 motion pictures and 100 television shows, including roles as the “marble rye lady” on “Seinfeld” and the grandmother in Adam Sandler’s “Happy Gilmore,” has died. She was 92.

Bay, also popular as a stage actress in local theaters, died Thursday at Providence Tarzana Medical Center, said her cousin Marly Zaslov of Vancouver. Bay had been ill with various infections.

The actress, whose right leg was amputated below the knee after she was struck by a car in Glendale in 2002, had been active until recently, appearing regularly as Aunt Ginny in the ABC sitcom “The Middle.”

Born in Mannville, Canada, on Jan. 23, 1919, the shy, diminutive Bay began acting in Winnipeg — voicing princesses on radio shows — and then in Toronto.

“I always wanted to be an actress,” she told The Times in 1986, when she was appearing as the bitter, eccentric mother in John Guare’s play “Bosoms and Neglect” at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.

“And it wasn’t ego,” she said. “I felt so little about myself, considered myself such a sparrow. Not just my size. I thought I was so plain.... I did plays not to show off but because if I did that — I didn’t realize it at the time — I would be somebody other than this person I didn’t really approve of. I guess that’s true of a lot of actors.”

Yet when she married her childhood sweetheart, businessman Charles Bay, the aspiring actress shelved her aspirations and became a homemaker when his job took them to the United States.

In the 1970s, when the couple were living in Manhattan, she resumed her acting studies with drama teacher Uta Hagen, and when the Bays moved to Boston, she began acting in dinner theater, summer stock and radio.

With renewed determination, in 1973 Bay sought — and got — agents and jobs in New York, commenting later: “I don’t know if it was women’s lib or something that kind of turned inside of me, but I just started doing it: got new pictures, started pounding the pavement, went to agents — and I got work.”

Two years later, when she and her husband moved permanently to Los Angeles, Bay’s career began to skyrocket. Beginning with the 1978 motion picture “Foul Play” starring Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, and moving into television a couple of years later with appearances on “The Jeffersons,” “Dukes of Hazzard” and indelibly as Fonzie’s Grandma Nussbaum in “Happy Days,” Bay was never again in want of work.

Her characters were often described simply as “old woman,” “elderly neighbor,” an aunt or a grandmother (as in “Happy Gilmore” in 1996), even “Mrs. Santa Claus.” On “Seinfeld,” she memorably played a woman who tangled with Jerry over the last loaf of marble rye bread.

She was a regular character actress for director David Lynch, who cast her in “Blue Velvet,” “Wild at Heart,” “Twin Peaks” and “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.”

Live theater gave Bay an opportunity to show her considerable acting ability. Over the years, she was in such plays as “Number Our Days,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “Sarcophagus,” “The Pleasure of His Company,” “Grease” and “Finnegan’s Wake.”

When she appeared as the cancer-ridden mother Henny in “Bosoms and Neglect,” she said it was a stretch for her, but one she enjoyed. To talk tough, she said, she simply thought of driving and being cut off in traffic, noting in that situation, “I can swear like a fishwife.”

Bay’s husband died in 2002, and their son died when he was 23. She has no immediate survivors.

Oliver is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.