Hollywood's favorite grandma Frances Bay continued acting after losing her right leg
TV icons from Fonzie to Inspector Gadget called her grandma. She started her career late and continued stealing scenes until she died at 92.
Read to Me
On Happy Days, the role of Fonzie's grandma was played by two actors.
The first appearance of Grandma Nussbaum was by Lillian Bronson, but for the next three, legendary Hollywood grandma Frances Bay stepped into the role to stay.
You might remember that when it comes time for Fonzie to move in with grandma in the ninth season episode "Grandma Nussbaum," it's with Bay that Henry Winkler resides.
Comedy ensues when Fonzie tries to decide if his grandma would be better off in assisted living, instead of relying on her cool-guy grandson.
For Frances Bay, playing Fonzie's grandma was just one of many grandma roles audiences came to love her in.
In movies, her portrayal of Adam Sandler's character's grandma in Happy Gilmore might have been her most famous, but on TV she also played grandmas on many shows, everything from cartoons like Inspector Gadget to cult favorites like Twin Peaks.
Of her stereotype as a grandma, Bay felt indifferent. She actually preferred roles where she got to be a little mean!
"I get a lot of sweet old ladies," Bay told The Canadian Press in 1997. "But I have also been… witches. I would rather do things with some bite in it."
Bay got her start in acting late. Her first onscreen role ever came in 1976 on Kojak, when she was 57.
She delayed her acting career out of deference to her husband’s career, not pursuing acting until their children were raised. At that point, she had become timid about her talent, but not so timid that she wasn’t ready to pursue her dreams.
"I thought, 'enough of this being timid about what you want to do,'" she told The Vancouver Sun in 2001.
Acting was a fire inside her the old lady just couldn't put out. Even though she never saw herself as a star.
"I always wanted to be an actress," Bay told The Los Angeles Times in 1986. "And it wasn’t ego. 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."
By the end of her career, she appeared in more than 50 movies and TV roles, seemingly every casting director's favorite eccentric old lady.
But in 2002, her acting career was almost stopped short when she was struck by a car. She had to have her right leg amputated from the knee down.
It was a major setback, but after waiting years to be an actor, Bay wasn't ready to give up.
After the accident, she continued playing grandmas on the big screen and took on TV roles on hit shows, including a recurring role on The Middle. She appeared on that show until she passed away in 2011.
A year before her accident, Bay told The Vancouver Sun that nothing would keep her from being onscreen.
"The nice thing about being in this business — there are a lot of disappointing times, too — but just look at me," she said. "I can work until I can no longer stand up. If you want it. And I still want it."