Kay Medford: From the Bronx to Broadway

Stage and screen actress/comedienne Kay Medford (Margaret Kathleen Regan, 1919-1980) is best known for playing Fanny Brice’s mother in the original Broadway production of Funny Girl (1964) as we well as the 1968 movie version, garnering Tony and Oscar noms for her performances (This in spite of being an Irish Catholic in a patently Jewish role, a frequent occurrence throughout her career). She was also in the original Broadway productions of Paint Your Wagon (1951), A Hole in the Head (1957), Bye Bye Birdie (1960), and Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water (1966-68), along with a dozen other shows. Medford typically played snappy, curt, cynical characters with a tinge of Bronx humor, a quality for which she was widely loved. Naturally her screen work garnered more exposure, but she seemed to enjoy greater success on stage.

Medford’s mother had acted with stock companies, though both parents had died before Kay reached majority. She initially supported herself as a waitress before taking to the stage with a nightclub and Catskills resort act in which she performed comic impressions. Had vaudeville still been around then she would have played there! She began getting bit parts in movies in 1942. You can see her in a couple of the Maisie movies, the Little Rascals short Mighty Lak a Goat (1942), and musicals like Broadway Rhythm and Meet the People (both 1944). Gradually she worked her way to better supporting roles in films like BUtterfield 8 (1960), Girl of the Night (1960), The Rat Race (1960), Ensign Pulver (1964), A Fine Madness (1967), and William Castle’s The Busy Body (1967).

From the mid ’60s and throughout the ’70s Medford performed in comedy sketches on Dean Martin’s variety shows and specials. She was a regular on two short-lived sitcoms: That’s Life (1968) with Robert Morse and Hello Dolly’s E.J. Peaker, and To Rome with Love (1969) with John Forsythe. She was part of the ensembles of Alan Arkin’s ill-fated 1977 comedy Fire Sale, and Rob Reiner’s TV movie More than Friends (1978), and had a good role in the thriller Windows (1980) directed by Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis. Her last screen credit was a 1980 episode of Barney Miller.

Cancer took Medford at age 60, and it’s a pity, for old age suited her persona and she could have gone on playing cranky landladies and busybody neighbors for years to come.

For more on show business history, please read my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous