Nanette Fabray, whose enthusiastic charm, wide smile, and diverse talents made her a Tony Award-winning performer in the 1940s and an Emmy Award-winning comic actress in the 1950s, died Thursday at her home in Palos Verdes, Calif. She was 97.
Her son, Dr. Jamie MacDougall, confirmed her death.
Ms. Fabray was 28 when she received the Tony for best actress in a musical for her performance in “Love Life,” a collection of sketches with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Kurt Weill. It was her seventh Broadway show and followed her success in Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “High Button Shoes” the season before. Brooks Atkinson, writing about that musical in The New York Times, had called her “a neatly designed show-shop ingénue with considerable crackle.”
In 1956, she won two Emmy Awards, as best comedienne (as the category was then known) and best actress in a supporting role, for her work on “Caesar’s Hour,” the follow-up to “Your Show of Shows,” in which Sid Caesar had starred with Imogene Coca.
The next year, Ms. Fabray won another Emmy for the series, 10 months after she had been dismissed by the producers. Years later, she said she had been fired because her agent made demands for her third-season contract that the producers considered unreasonable.
Ms. Fabray nearly gave her life for the show. In 1955, she was hospitalized for almost two weeks after being knocked unconscious by a falling pipe backstage during a broadcast.
The stage and the small screen turned out to be Ms. Fabray’s métiers, but she started out in film. Her first movie role was as a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth I (Bette Davis) in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939). In that and the two other film dramas she made that year, she was billed as Nanette Fabares. She changed the spelling of her surname after too many public mispronunciations.
Ms. Fabray had one notable film success: the Comden and Green musical “The Band Wagon” (1953), directed by Vincente Minnelli. The film included the number “Triplets,” in which she, Fred Astaire, and Jack Buchanan played infants, with adult-size heads and torsos but short, stubby baby legs.
Ruby Nanette Bernadette Theresa Fabares was born on Oct. 27, 1920, in San Diego. Her family soon moved to Los Angeles, where Nanette began working in vaudeville at age 4. Her father, Raul, was a train engineer; her mother, the former Lily McGovern, took in boarders. Ms. Fabray recalled that her other childhood job was ironing lodgers’ shirts.
She attended Los Angeles Junior College and studied acting with the Austrian-born director Max Reinhardt, but she had academic difficulties because of an undiagnosed hearing problem. The problem was eventually corrected by surgery, and she became a spokeswoman and advocate for the hearing-impaired.
Ms. Fabray was 21 when she appeared in her first Broadway show, “Let’s Face It,” (1941), a musical comedy, starring Danny Kaye and Eve Arden, about three married women who hire soldiers as escorts. She left the show in 1943 to take a small replacement role in Rodgers and Hart’s “By Jupiter.”
After appearing in two short-lived shows, “My Dear Public” and “Jackpot,” Ms. Fabray replaced Celeste Holm in 1945 as the star of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Bloomer Girl,” a musical comedy set in the 1860s. Two years later she married one of the show’s publicists, David Tebet. They divorced in 1951, and in 1957 she married Ranald MacDougall, a screenwriter.
MacDougall died in 1973. Besides her son, Ms. Fabray leaves two grandchildren.
Although she continued to work on Broadway after her Tony win, Ms. Fabray began concentrating on television. Her first credited appearance was on “The Chevrolet Tele-Theater” in 1949, but she had already been involved in demonstrations of the new medium.
After the Caesar show, Ms. Fabray attempted a sitcom of her own, but “The Nanette Fabray Show” (1961), also known as “Westinghouse Playhouse,” lasted less than a season. She went on to four decades of television movies and guest appearances on series, including “Love, American Style,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (as Moore’s mother), “One Day at a Time” (as Bonnie Franklin’s mother), and the 1990s sitcom “Coach,” on which she played the mother of her real-life niece Shelley Fabares.
Back on the New York stage in 1963, she received a Tony nomination for her role as a fictional first lady in “Mr. President,” Irving Berlin’s last Broadway show. Her final Broadway appearance went less well: “No Hard Feelings,” a 1973 comedy that also starred Eddie Albert, closed after opening night.
Ms. Fabray continued to do stage work (in 2007 she appeared in “The Damsel Dialogues” in Sherman Oaks, Calif.), but said more than once that live television was her first love. As she told a reporter for The New York Times in 1955, “It involves a form of insanity that reminds me of make-believe games that you played as a child.”
When asked about her career, she declared that comic ability was unteachable but acknowledged one factor in her success. During her third Broadway show, she told the Archive of American Television in 2004, things changed because “I fell in love with the audience, and I fell in love with performing.”