R.I.P. Frances Bay, television's go-to actor for playing elderly women
Numerous sources have reported the death of Frances Bay, a woman who found her calling late in life playing grandmotherly types in more than 100 different film and television roles that spanned everything from Seinfeld and Twin Peaks to Happy Gilmore. Bay died of complications from pneumonia. She was 92.
After giving up her early acting aspirations to dedicate herself to being a homemaker, Bay relaunched her career in the 1970s, eventually landing a role in the Chevy Chase/Goldie Hawn movie Foul Play in 1978, when she was in her late 50s. From there she found steady work on television shows like The Jeffersons and Dukes Of Hazzard, and had a memorable role as Fonzie’s delightfully addled, hard-of-hearing Grandma Nussbaum on Happy Days.
Reading Bay’s IMDB credits is like a cataloging of television history for the last 30 years, so often was Bay called upon to play some variation on the elderly woman character—usually sweet and somewhat daffy, but occasionally sinister (as with her turns on Passions and Tales From The Crypt). Bay had appearances on everything from Who’s The Boss? to The X-Files, ER to Family Ties, Cheers to Hill Street Blues, ALF to Quantum Leap, and continued working regularly right through this year with a recurring role as Aunt Ginny on The Middle. But it’s doubtless most people will most readily recognize her as the “old bag” who loses a marble rye to a desperate Jerry on Seinfeld, a role that got a reprise in the show’s series finale.
One of Bay’s biggest supporters was director David Lynch, who cast her as the aunt to Kyle MacLachlan’s character in Blue Velvet, then had her play against type as a foulmouthed madam in Wild At Heart. And of course, he used her most memorably as Twin Peaks’ creepy Mrs. Tremond, whose appearance—both in the series and in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—alongside her even more creepy grandson always seemed to herald something bad happening. She also really, really disliked creamed corn.
Bay’s other feature film appearances included The Karate Kid (and The Karate Kid Part III), Twins, Big Top Pee-wee, Arachnophobia, The Grifters, Single White Female, In The Mouth Of Madness, and Stranger Than Fiction. And to a certain generation, she will likely always be Adam Sandler’s grandma from Happy Gilmore, where she suffers under the cruel regime of Ben Stiller, and earned a nation's sympathy once more as the eternally sweet grandmother we all want to protect.