Dow was born in a Pennsylvania mining town in 1913, the seventh child of Italian immigrants, according to the New York Times. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater from Cornell University she danced, mimed and performed at Yiddish theaters in New York City.
In the 1950s she moved to Los Angeles with her husband, Eugene Dow; there, she began teaching acting at local colleges. It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that her film career took off — by then over 70, Dow found her niche playing feisty older women.
In “The Wedding Singer,” Dow’s age and slight stature (she was just shy of 5 feet tall) made her an improbable candidate to cover the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Adam Sandler, who played “the singer,” and director Frank Coraci “thought it would take days and nights to get it,” she told the New York Daily News when the movie came out.
But Dow had a knack for delivering the unexpected with aplomb. She refused to lip sync the scene, according to a 2006 interview with entertainment writer Jim Colucci. Instead she opted to memorize the lyrics and add her own dance moves: flinging her hands up on the words “bang bang,” a sprightly hop during the phrase “up jump the boogie.”
“Once I got started, they couldn’t believe it. My husband was up in the booth, and he told me later they came over to him and said, ‘Can you believe this? She’s getting it right!'” she said. “… It just worked.”
Dow told the Daily News that she was never quite sure how she wound up as a character actress. She didn’t see herself as a funny person — at least, not under most circumstances.
“I don’t act up unless the music plays. When I dance, I’m completely different,” she said.
Despite her knack for portraying grandparents (she’s also known for her role as the foul-mouthed homophobic grandmother in “The Wedding Crashers”) Dow never wanted to be considered one, her agent Julie Green told the Associated Press.
“She was fiercely independent and hated when anyone tried to treat her like an old lady,” Green said. But, Green added, “She was always amazed and delighted to be recognized when strangers approached her on the street to tell her how much they loved her.”