No, No, Says Nanette:
At Least Not Yet
Hollywood, Broadway And Television Legend Nanette Fabray Talks About Her Early Days In The Contract System And Working With Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks And Sid Caesar
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
July 7, 2014 — In an interviewing career that has spanned more than three decades, we’ve talked to celebrities who lounged in restaurant booths, stood stiffly (and warily) waiting for valets to retrieve their Mercedes 380-SELs or walked speedily down red carpets employing selective eye contact vis-à-vis the press. We’ve also questioned an actor who spread-eagled himself on his production company floor while wolfing down an In-N-Out Burger (David Hasselhoff) and one who casually reclined poolside as if she were in her natural element (Esther Williams). She was in her element, or at least adjacent to it!
But our recent visit with 94-year-old comedienne and TV mainstay, Nanette Fabray, marked a first for us. She was bed-ridden in a prone position. We … well … weren’t.
Slightly concave due to the plumped pillows behind her, Nanette talked up at us from the bed in her home just off Sunset Blvd. in Pacific Palisades. Trooper that she is, Nanette had the great good humor (befitting an actress who served as Sid Caesar's comic foil and won three Emmys in the mid-‘50s on Caesar's Hour) to joke about the absurdity of the situation.
“Please don’t lie to me about how great I look or I’ll kick you out of my boudoir,” she laughed. She then asked us if we wanted some refreshment: “Coffee … booze … booze in your coffee?”
Fabray said she was literally “pushed” into show business by her mother.
“She was a wannabe actress with no talent whatsoever and didn’t care if I had talent or not,” Fabray said. “It turned out, luckily, that I did have some talent. It would have been terrible otherwise … all that pushing for no pay-off.”
Although Fabray’s film career was rather desultory, she did appear in one of the greatest musicals (and one of the last) from MGM’s golden age: The Band Wagon (1953), starring Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse and Oscar Levant. Although she was cast in the movie because she was, by her own admission, “adorable,” her memories of the experience are not as joyous as the film itself.
“We were literally slaves of our contracts,” she said. “There used to be a term: ‘a $10,000-a-week man.’ That meant that you were at the top of the food chain. But most contract actors like me were way below that. I was the low-girl on the totem pole at that time — a newcomer and every 15 minutes they could reconsider my contract and fire me if they wanted.”
Fabray’s angst extended to her co-star and “husband” in the film, Oscar Levant.
“During our scenes together I would have to take the cigarette out of his mouth – he was always smoking – kiss him and then put it back into his mouth,” she said.
About the classic “Triplets” number which she performed in infant regalia on her knees alongside Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan: “It was tortuous,” she said, “We were on our knees all the time for that dance and I had to have my knees drained of fluid from the banging that they took.”
After her contract lapsed, Fabray said she couldn’t find a job in Hollywood so she headed east toward a fortuitous meeting with Sid Caesar.
“I needed a job,” she said, “and Sid and his crew were putting together their very first show. The timing was perfect. Sid, who I love with all my heart, unless he was playing a character, could not talk. He was totally incoherent. ‘Me hungry,’ he would say. I am not joking!”
Fabray said that although Caesar talked like a caveman, he was a genius. “Carl Reiner was there at that first meeting, Mel Brooks, everyone,” she said. “I told them I can sing and dance and I’m also a very good waitress and a good secretary; I can take dictation.
“Well, Sid told me to sing and dance, which I did,” Fabray continued. “After I finished, he said: ‘You’re in the show.’ And that was it.”
Fabray never looked back from her three-year stint (1954-57) on Caesar’s Hour. Afterwords, she interspersed TV appearances — including a recurring role as Bonnie Franklin’s mother in One Day at a Time — with stage work. And although there were some fallow periods work wise, she has no regrets.
“I’m an old lady still happy to be alive, she said. “But make no mistake; I’m not ready to go … not yet!”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at www.reeltoreal.com.
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