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Actress Frances Bay, 92, marble rye lady on ‘Seinfeld’

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Actress Frances Bay, the old lady “mugged” for a marble rye by Jerry Seinfeld, placed into a nursing home by Happy Gilmore, and “Fonzi’s” Grandma Nussbaum died in Los Angeles on Sept. 15 at 92.

From the 1978 Goldie Hawn-Chevy Chase film “Foul Play” on, Bay “hit her stride playing the role she became known for: an often doddering, mostly sweet, elderly woman,” The New York Times said. IMDB credited her with more than 150 appearances in TV shows and films. She acted through 2011, nine years after losing part of her right leg after a car accident. Her last recurring role was as Aunt Ginny in the ABC sitcom "The Middle".

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Bay appeared on “Seinfeld” three times as Mabel Choate, once in the popular “marble rye” episode, and in the show’s final episode. As one Seinfeld aficionado reminded The Eulogizer, the ramifications of Seinfeld’s rye bread theft caused his father’s impeachment as president of his Florida condo community in a different episode, which ran a clip of the mugging. Along with the Seinfeld finale, Bay also appeared in the final episodes of “Happy Days” and “Who’s the Boss?”

Discussing her stints on "Happy Days," she once described Henry "The Fonz" Winkler as "just a sweet guy."

"He lost his own grandmother in the Holocaust," she reportedly said, "and he wrote me a letter saying I was his virtual grandmother."

Other well-known shows in which Bay played variations of her stock character included "Grey’s Anatomy," "Hannah Montana," "ER" and "Quantum Leap." Bay appeared in four works by cult filmmaker David Lynch, including “Blue Velvet,” and as a “foul-mouthed madam” in "Wild at Heart." The “creamed corn” scene with Lara Flynn Boyle can be found here, as can a video interview in which Bay talks about meeting Lynch and discussing small-town life. A YouTube video posted in the days after Bay died offered a number of notable clips of her in various films and TV shows.

Bay was born Frances Goffman in the small town of Mannville, Alberta, a village in Canada of fewer than 1,000 located 120 miles east of Edmonton, and raised in Dauphin, Manitoba. Her father was an immigrant from Ukraine and ran a clothing store. She acted in school and in regional theater (see a fetching older photo of her here), and became prominent in Canada during World War II as “The Girlfriend to the Canadian Forces” on a CBC radio show that troops said “kept their spirits up.”

"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."

Bay became a homemaker after marriage and didn’t resume acting until the 1970s, when she took classes with famed drama teacher Uta Hagen. "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 said.

Bay won a Gemini Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Emmy, in 1997 and a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto in 2008 after a campaign generated 10,000 letters on her behalf. Her husband and son predeceased Bay.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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