Canadian-born Frances Bay acted for more than 60 years, appearing in some 50 movies and 100 television shows. During the Second World War, she was CBC Radio’s It Girl. Her name is on Canada’s Walk of Fame. She played in classical Greek tragedies.
But for millions, she was the crotchety old lady Jerry Seinfeld mugged for a marble rye bread on the streets of New York.
A veteran character actress, she played many tiny, cute grandmothers during her long career, including Adam Sandler’s hapless but loving “Grandma” in Happy Gilmore and Arthur (The Fonz) Fonzarelli’s “Grandma Nussbaum” on TV’s Happy Days.
“I think at one point she said she’d rather not be known as everybody’s grandmother, but she never got tired of playing anything,” said her cousin, Marly Zaslov of Vancouver.
Indeed, the Internet Movie Database lists 158 credits for her.
An elfin woman who always appeared frail, she could be feisty, sweet or downright weird, the latter coming in handy for director David Lynch. Bay appeared in Lynch’s Wild at Heart, was Kyle MacLachlan’s aunt in Blue Velvet, and the creepy Mrs. Tremond in Lynch’s TV series, Twin Peaks.
Bay had the unique distinction of guesting on the final episodes of Happy Days, Who’s the Boss? and Seinfeld. She appeared in three Seinfeld episodes as the ornery Mabel Choate. Tussling with Jerry over a precious marble rye after spurning his offer of $50 for it, she later exacts revenge for the theft by first voting to impeach Seinfeld’s father as president of his Florida condo board, and in the series finale, testifying in court against the show’s four main characters.
She “adored” her cult status as the “marble rye lady,” Zaslov said.
Bay died Sept. 15 in Tarzana, Calif., of pneumonia and other infections. She was 92. For her funeral in Los Angeles, Jerry Seinfeld sent a note saying Bay “stole the scene” involving the coveted loaf.
“I always wanted to be an actress,” Bay told The Los Angeles Times in 1986, when she was appearing as the mean, cancer-ridden Henny in John Guare’s play Bosoms and Neglect (a role she conceded was a stretch for her. To talk tough, she simply thought of being cut off in traffic, noting in that situation, “I can swear like a fishwife.”)
It wasn’t ego that drove her to acting, but poor self-esteem. “I felt so little about myself, considered myself such a sparrow. Not just my size. I thought I was so plain. ... I did plays not to show off but because if I did that – I didn’t realize it at the time – I would be somebody other than this person I didn’t really approve of. I guess that’s true of a lot of actors.”
She was born Frances Goffman on Jan. 23, 1919, in Mannville, Alta., to Max and Anne Averbach, Jews who had fled czarist Russia. The clan later moved to Dauphin, Man., where her father ran a clothing and dry goods store.
Bay’s younger brother, Erving Goffman, became a renowned sociologist who wrote a pivotal book on social theory that used the imagery of the theatre to portray the importance of human interaction. He died in 1982.
Bay was drawn to theatre and film even as a child. “A teacher of mine, Mary Hamilton, took a liking to me and inspired me and, well, created me,” she told The Globe and Mail in 2008, when her name was added to Canada’s Walk of Fame. “She put me in all the school plays and musicals. I couldn’t really sing, but I could act, be a character. And every Wednesday night in Dauphin we’d go to the movies, the whole family, for 50 cents. I loved that.”
She was first cast as a Chinese princess in a grade-school production. At age 9, she was equally smitten with handsome classmate Charles Bay. “She pointed at him,” said Zaslov, “and said, “ ‘I’m going to marry him.’ “ They married in 1947.
Bay continued with amateur productions at the University of Winnipeg’s United College, where she played more princess roles. “Do I have to keep playing princesses?” she once grumbled. “My dear,” said the director, “as long as you can play princesses, you play princesses.”
She then became enthralled with Winnipeg’s leftist New Theatre Group in the 1930s. “It was when labour unions were struggling to be recognized,” she told Maclean’s magazine in 2008. “I wasn’t a labour sort of person. I’m a middle-class Jewish gal. But this theatre was so exciting. I’m a socialist today, if that means anything.”
During the Second World War, she hosted CBC Radio’s weekly Everybody’s Program, which targeted Canadian troops overseas. A sultry sound earned her the moniker “The Girlfriend of the Canadian Forces.” Zaslov has kept two letters from Canadian servicemen who wrote to Bay saying they could hardly wait “to hear your voice.”
Charles Bay, by now a Harvard MBA, landed a job with Cartier, which took the couple to New York, where Bay studied with the legendary Uta Hagen, then to Boston, where she did dinner theatre and summer stock, and on to Los Angeles and further studies with Maria Ouspenskaya.
But instead of plunging into the acting scene there, she put her career on hold to raise a son, Josh. When he committed suicide at 23, Bay, then 60, resumed acting. In 1978, she appeared alongside Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase in the comedy Foul Play, and never looked back.
“I don’t know if it was women’s lib or something that kind of turned inside of me, but I just started doing it: got new pictures, started pounding the pavement, went to agents – and I got work,” she told the Times.
Indeed, work poured in. On television, she won roles as kindly old ladies in Hart to Hart, The Jeffersons, Matlock, The X-Files, Murder, She Wrote, Hill Street Blues and many other shows. A veteran of the L.A. theatre scene, she appeared in local productions of Finnegans Wake, Grease, Genius, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and The Pleasure of His Company. She won two Drama-Logue Awards for Others and Right of Way, and was nominated in 1978 for a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for her performance in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Into her eighties, she played Hecuba by night in The Greeks, a powerful production of classical tragedies at L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre, and rehearsed The Hughleys, a TV sitcom, by day.
She hadn’t worked in Canada for decades, but when she did, she won a Gemini Award for her 1996 guest appearance on Road to Avonlea. Her last role was as the silent, wheelchair-bound, heavy smoking Aunt Ginny on the ABC sitcom, The Middle.
Playing Seinfeld, she told The Globe, was “wonderful, a high for me. And working with [Happy Days’]Henry Winkler. He’s just a sweet guy. He lost his own grandmother in the Holocaust and he wrote me a letter saying I was his virtual grandmother. I can’t really complain about anyone I’ve worked with, except maybe one person, a producer, whom I won’t name. Or maybe two.”
Bay’s husband died in 2002, the same year she had part of her right leg amputated after a car hit her while she was on her way to a bakery. To help celebrate her 90th birthday, Bay’s fans and loved ones launched a campaign for the actress to be recognized on Canada’s Walk of Fame. Winkler, Sandler, Lynch, Monty Hall and other stars led the petition drive that collected thousands of signatures.
Asked in 2008 what she considers the secret of good acting, Bay said, “Loving it and training. I don’t consider myself a great actor. But I had, and you have to have, dedication and tenacity. But that applies to all walks of life.”
Bay leaves niece Alice Goffman, nephew James Goffman and several cousins.
Special to The Globe and Mail