Nanette Fabray, a Tony Award-winning Broadway actress and singer who later received three Emmy Awards in the 1950s as Sid Caesar’s comic foil on television, died Feb. 22 at her home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. She was 97.
Her son, Jamie MacDougall, announced her death. The cause was not disclosed.
Ms. Fabray began her career as a child performer in vaudeville and in Hollywood films in her teens, but she gained her greatest acclaim on the Broadway stage and in television.
Throughout the 1940s, she appeared in musicals including a starring role in “High Button Shoes” in 1947, a frothy romp in which Ms. Fabray charmed audiences with her sunny manner, nimble dancing and vibrant singing.
In 1948, she starred in “Love Life,” with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, and won a Tony Award for her performance.
She appeared in other Broadway musicals, including “Arms and the Girl” and “Make a Wish,” and worked with such renowned songwriters as Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.
Early in her career, she auditioned for a Rodgers musical by singing Porter’s “Everything I Love.” When Rodgers asked whether she knew anything else, Ms. Fabray sang “Everything I Love” as a jazz tune, as an operatic aria, as a blues song and as a waltz.
“Honey, that was not only a bad audition, it was probably the worst I’ve ever heard,” Ms. Fabray later recalled the songwriter saying. “But you can have the part if you want it.”
In 1953, she had a major film role in the Hollywood musical “The Band Wagon,” alongside Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse and Oscar Levant. Ms. Fabray was featured in several memorable songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, including “That’s Entertainment,” “Louisiana Hayride” and “The Triplets,” a lively tour de force in which she, Astaire and Jack Buchanan portrayed quarrelsome infant triplets.
As one of the most acclaimed comic actresses and singers of the time, Ms. Fabray appeared on countless variety shows in the early 1950s, including Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” In 1954, she was tapped to join the comedy master on his new program, “Caesar’s Hour.”
“The minute Sid and I worked together, it was as if we had worked together all of our lives,” Ms. Fabray said in 2004 interview with the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television. “It was like a theatrical marriage. . . . I could almost read Sid’s mind. It was magic.”
The show was broadcast live, and for two years, Caesar and Ms. Fabray created comedy on the fly, often improvising as the cameras rolled. In one skit, they played a married couple having an argument, performed entirely in pantomime to match the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
In another routine, “Shadow Waltz,” Ms. Fabray sang an operatic song to Caesar, who was dressed as a mustachioed 19th-century soldier. During the song, Ms. Fabray never lost composure as Caesar broke a necklace, causing the pearls to rattle to the floor.
Caesar then caught his fake mustache in Ms. Fabray’s hair.
“The audience was hysterical, and I couldn’t see what was going on back there,” Ms. Fabray said in the 2004 Television Academy Foundation interview. “Finally, he puts the mustache back on, and it’s upside down. . . . And I turned around, and we’re face to face. The expression on my face was worth anything I’ve ever done in show business.”
She left the show in 1956 after a dispute with Caesar that was not cleared up until much later. Ms. Fabray learned that her business manager, without her permission, demanded that she receive equal billing and the same salary as Caesar. The manager, Ms. Fabray said, never explained his actions and blamed the breakup on Caesar. It took years before she and Caesar were reconciled.
“I regret it to this day,” she said in the 2004 interview. “I would have stayed with him forever. I would have paid to work with him.”
During those years, Ms. Fabray was dealing with progressive hearing loss. Despite using hearing aids, it became difficult for her to hear stage and musical cues. One insensitive doctor told her she would lose the ability to speak, “and you’ll be deaf and dumb.”
In her early 30s, she finally learned that she had otosclerosis, a disease of the bones of the inner ear that limited the transmission of sound. She underwent several operations from the 1950s to the 1970s that restored her hearing.
“It was pretty traumatic,” she told The Washington Post in 1984. “My whole life had been easy and wonderful, and I was a success at everything I’d done up to then. All of a sudden, I was one of those terrible people the world looked down on. We live in a totally different era now, but then there was a great stigma attached to being less than perfect.”
Ms. Fabray learned to use sign language and served on several national commissions to help provide education and job training for people with hearing loss or with other disabilities. In a touching 1968 appearance on “The Carol Burnett Show,” she performed an a cappella version of “Over the Rainbow,” singing and signing at the same time.
Ruby Bernadette Nanette Fabares was born Oct. 27, 1920, in San Diego and grew up in Los Angeles. Her father was a railroad engineer and her mother a homemaker.
She was a child when her parents divorced, and she helped her mother run a boardinghouse, learning to iron a shirt in one minute. She appeared in vaudeville shows in her youth and graduated from Hollywood High School, where her classmates included actresses Alexis Smith and Lana Turner.
In the early 1960s, Ms. Fabray starred in a short-lived television program, “Westinghouse Playhouse,” sometimes called “The Nanette Fabray Show,” before returning to Broadway in 1963 for Irving Berlin’s final musical, “Mr. President.” She received a Tony nomination for her role as the first lady.
Ms. Fabray was a frequent guest on TV variety shows and game shows and had recurring roles on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” playing Moore’s mother, and on the sitcom “One Day at a Time,” as Bonnie Franklin’s mother. In the 1990s, Ms. Fabray appeared on the sitcom “Coach,” playing the mother of Shelley Fabares, her niece in real life.
Her first marriage, to press agent and studio executive David Tebet, ended in divorce. Her second husband, screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, died in 1973 after 16 years of marriage. Survivors include their son and two grandchildren.
Ms. Fabray appeared in stage productions into her late 80s and toured the country with a one-woman show. She often recounted the story of how she altered the spelling of her last name. During an early variety-show appearance, she was introduced by Ed Sullivan, who later had a long-running show of his own.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “please give a warm welcome to Miss Nanette Fa-bare-ass.”
“I changed the spelling of my name the next day,” Ms. Fabray said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the sitcom “One Day at a Time” as a soap opera. The story has been revised.