Emmy Award and Tony winner Nanette Fabray, known for her roles as Bonnie Franklin’s mother on One Day at a Time, Mary Tyler Moore’s mother on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the mother of Shelley Fabares’ character (who was also her niece in real life) on Coach, has passed away at the age of 97 in her home in Palos Verdes, California. According to her son, Dr. Jamie MacDougall, Fabray died of old age.
Born Ruby Bernadette Nanette Fabares on Oct. 27, 1920, in San Diego, Fabray was only three when her career began. She became a Vaudeville singer and dancer known as Baby Nanette. She took to Broadway next in a steady stream of musicals, including Bloomer Girl, High Button Shoes, and Mr. President. But it was her role in the television series, Caesar’s Hour, that brought her three Emmy awards and a large audience of fans.
Nothing could stop Fabray from making a career in Hollywood, not even a hearing impairment. She struggled all through school and into middle age with her hearing problem because of otosclerosis, which is a disease that causes an abnormal growth of bone in the ears. After she learned she would eventually lose her hearing, Fabray learned sign language, even singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in sign language on an episode of The Carol Burnett Show. She also signed “I love you” each time she appeared on The Hollywood Squares.
Her husband, Ranald MacDougall, an American screenwriter, convinced her to get a hearing aid, and later, in 1967, Fabray had surgery that restored her hearing, but that didn’t stop her from advocating on behalf of the hearing impaired. She was even awarded the President’s Distinguished Service Award and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award for her advocacy.
Fabray last appeared on television in 1993 in an episode of The Golden Palace, the short-lived spin-off of The Golden Girls, but the news of her death revealed how much she had touched the lives of those around her as social media exploded. Gabrielle Carteris, the SAG-AFTRA president, posted a picture of the actress, calling her “a true performer and star of Hollywood’s Golden Age.”
But it was Fabray’s son who summed up the life of this remarkable woman.
“She was an extraordinary woman. Many people referred to her as a force of nature and you could feel it when she walked into the room. She just exuded warmth, wit, charm, love, and she touched so many people in so many ways. I hope all of us can look back on our lives and be able to say that at the end of our lives.”