Every body has a story.
Every body has a story.
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December 14, 1902—December 6, 1989
Content warning: this article contains potentially disturbing content, including references to death, divorce, many diseases, and adult bickering. Please use your best judgment as to whether you wish to read this content. Language is PG-13.
Frances Elizabeth Bavier was born on December 14, 1902, in a Gramercy Park Brownstone in New York City—or at least that’s the way Bavier told it. Her parents were Charles S. and Mary (née Birmingham) Bavier. Her father was employed as a stationary engineer, which seems to be less-common terminology for machine operator. She had an older sister, Margaret, who was about ten years her senior, and an older brother, Charles (middle initial A), who was about five years older than her.
Bavier grew up here and there in New York City. In Spring of 1910 she was living with her family and two cousins on Fourth Street (not Avenue) in Manhattan. The building is Brownstone-ish, so it’s possible it was the same place where she was born. (It’s not technically in Gramercy Park, but it’s close enough that someone would only have to stretch the truth a little to claim it was.)
She was childhood friends with actress Kay Johnson (whose best-known work is probably actor James Cromwell, to whom she gave birth in 1940). According to Bavier both girls had a love of playacting, so they formed a very amateur dramatic club. Johnson was the self-appointed casting director and assigned all of the leading lady roles to herself, while Bavier was relegated to the best friend/adversary/comic relief parts. Eventually Bavier tired of the “second fiddle” casting, and the partnership ended.
In Spring of 1920, she was living with her family (sans her mother, who had passed away at age 53 on March 20th of that year) on West 91st Street, probably in another Brownstone/Brownstone-ish building. Bavier’s father died on November 27th of that year, at the age of 70.
[Please note: in this paragraph, the timeline Bavier herself provided doesn’t seem to fit with reality, so the dates/circumstances may not be strictly correct.] Bavier enrolled in Washington Irving High School and was happily, or maybe unhappily, studenting there. Lo and behold, one day she finds out that her frenemy Kay Johnson has landed a part in a real Broadway play, “Go West, Young Man.” (This next part is where the timeline gets a little “off.”) “Go West, Young Man” with Kay Johnson ran on Broadway for 48 performances starting on November 12, 1923. According to Bavier’s death certificate (and corroborated by various censuses), she was born in December 1902, which means she was almost 21 years old at the time. Maybe she wasn’t the most ambitious student; more likely she was fudging details when she told the story in order to make people think she was younger than she was. In any case, Bavier said that when she got wind of Johnson’s new job, she had an “if she can do it, I can do it” moment and left Washington Irving High School to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. (Some sources say that, intent on becoming a teacher, Bavier attended/graduated from Columbia University. The Columbia University website is not one of the sources that says that, nor was Frances Bavier.) However, both Bavier and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts—which was located in Carnegie Hall at the time—proudly affirm that she graduated from the highly respected AADA in 1925, by which time she was sharing a place in Queens, New York, with her sister. Perhaps the address was on 215 Street in Bayside, Queens, because that’s where the two of them were living in 1930.
Even before graduating from AADA, Bavier was hired for her first professional job, a role in the play “The Poor Nut,” which was performed at a Stamford, Connecticut, theater.
There are no other official records of any jobs she had, acting or otherwise, from 1925 through 1930. However, some sources say she worked in vaudeville, and I say there were also plenty of off-Broadway stage acting opportunities in New York and surrounding areas at the time.
There are reports that claim Bavier was married to a man named Russell Carpenter (who was said to be either a stockbroker or a military man) from 1928 to 1933. However, I can find no documentation of this. Add that to the fact that on censuses for both 1925 and 1930 she was reported to be living with only her sister—and that her death certificate clearly reads “never married”—I’m guessing not. Feel free to prove me wrong.
The earliest film role listed for Bavier was as Joy the Party Girl in the 1931 movie Girls About Town. However, it was an uncredited role, and no one can seem to agree as to which one of the many non-speaking/non-spoken-to party girls is Bavier, so maybe her part ended up on the cutting room floor.
Bavier’s first credited Broadway role was as Mrs. Floyd in the March-June 1935 Broadway play “Black Pit.” That was followed by three small roles in the November-December 1935 run of the Broadway play “Mother.” From then on she was a frequent sight on the Broadway stage through 1952.
She performed in many touring companies as well, including stints in Lakewood, Maine; Melbourne, Australia; and Honolulu, Hawaii (where she also participated in some shows the United Service Organizations (USO) put on for the troops serving in World War II).
The first credited film role Bavier played was Mrs. Asbury in 1943’s musical comedy O, My Darling Clementine, which starred Roy Acuff (not to be confused with 1946’s non-musical non-comedy My Darling Clementine, which starred Henry Fonda). Appearing with Bavier in the 1943 film was another 1960’s sitcom icon, Irene Ryan (who starred as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies until the show became a victim of the “notorious rural purge”).
Bavier made no secret of the fact that she longed to be cast in glamorous leading-lady roles, but sadly that turned out to be not what the universe had in mind for her. The show business world is second-to-none in stereotyping and pigeonholing people, and Bavier was just not deemed leading lady material. (There are some PG-rated glamour photos on the internet that some people claim to be of “a young Frances Bavier,” but they are not.)
In 1950 Bavier was interviewed by an Australian newspaper while she was there performing in “Harvey” with Joe E. Brown. In the subsequent printed article, she said that at up until the age of 28 she played ingenue roles and then “leapt” into character acting. She said that she was 33 when she played an 80-year-old character in 1938’s Broadway play “On Borrowed Time.” (Again with the age-shaving!) In another little “discrepancy,” the journalist was under the impression that she was a “New Yorker born and bred of several generations of New Yorkers…,” despite the fact that census information says her maternal grandparents were born in Ireland and her father’s father and mother were born Ireland and England, respectively. Heck, her father wasn’t even born in New York, but New Jersey. (I’m not throwing stones—show me an adult who doesn’t “edit” some aspect of their past.)
Busy working on the stage, Bavier did not appear in another movie until 1951, but she made up for some lost time by showing up in three films that year. She played Mrs. Barley in the science fiction cult classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (affiliate link), Mrs. Rogers in the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicle The Stooge, and Aunt Alice Hatch in the comedy The Lady Says No.
For the rest of the 1950’s she performed in dozens of movies and television shows, mostly as characters named “Mrs.” Somebody or “Aunt” So-and-so. She had recurring roles in the television series It’s a Great Life as Mrs. Amy Morgan and The Eve Arden Show as Nora the Housekeeper. In 1956 she had an uncredited role in another cult classic movie, The Bad Seed, which hosted a limousine-load of 1950’s and 1960’s television series icons: Frank Cady (from rural purge victim Green Acres—affiliate link), Shelley Fabares (from The Donna Reed Show), Kathy Garver (from rural purge victim Family Affair), and William Hopper (from Perry Mason, on which Bavier would guest star in a 1957 episode).
Yet another job she had sometime in the 1950’s was as a live-action reference model for one of the fairies in Walt Disney’s animated feature film Sleeping Beauty (affiliate link). In case you’re not familiar with this rather obscure line of work: basically, a live-action reference model dons some semblance of a costume that is similar to the one the animated character will be drawn wearing. Then the director tells the model what motions to make/activities to mimic, and the model does them. The actions are recorded, and the animators later use the footage as guides while drawing to help them make the animated characters’ movements look more realistic.
In early 1960 Bavier was seen in the role of Henrietta Perkins on The Danny Thomas Show (also known as Make Room for Daddy) in the episode “Danny Meets Andy Griffith.” (The title isn’t completely accurate, as the episode depicts Thomas’s character, Danny Williams, meeting Griffith’s character, Andy Taylor.) It was the American television-viewing public’s first introduction to the fictional widowed sheriff of Mayberry. Ron Howard also appeared in the episode as cute-as-a-button Opie Taylor, and Ron Howard’s real-life dad, Rance Howard, played a cameraman. There was a never-seen, never-heard character talked about named Aunt Lucy. [For the record, Sheriff Taylor pulls over Entertainer Williams for running a stop sign (for which there is no corresponding crossroad). Some sources say the offense was speeding, but I don’t recall the “S” word being said at all in the episode.]
Later in 1960 a new television situation comedy series premiered. Called The Andy Griffith Show (affiliate link), it centers around single father Sheriff Andy Taylor (played by Andy Griffith) and his cute-as-a-button son Opie (played by Ron Howard). The newest member of their household is Andy’s Aunt Bee (their spelling, not mine), played by Bavier. Sorry, never-again-mentioned Aunt Lucy. Some people say that The Andy Griffith Show sprang from the success of that Danny Thomas Show episode, but I suspect it was a “backdoor pilot,” made to test interest in the proposed new series. (A “backdoor pilot” is a pilot for a new show idea that is presented as an episode of a currently running—usually highly rated—series. It includes cast members of the currently running show and the proposed show, but the story line is based heavily on the prospective show’s premise.)
TAGS, as The Andy Griffith Show is often affectionately nicknamed, became Bavier’s life for the next eight years. During and after those years many comments were made claiming that Bavier was difficult to work with on the set. She was “self-contained,” didn’t participate in the on-set “hi-jinks,” and did not approve of some of the other cast members’ “vulgar” language. And then there’s this famous quote (or perhaps misquote) she delivered to Howard Morris (who played Ernest T. Bass on the series) when he was directing an episode of the show: “Nobody will move me, I am not a dining room table, I am not a sofa, I am not a rug. How dare you!” Maybe I’m biased, and I don’t deny that she probably was often more short-tempered than she needed to be, but it sounds to me if she was frequently treated with much less consideration and respect than she deserved.
In a related story, Sheldon Leonard, an executive producer for both The Danny Thomas Show and The Andy Griffith Show, claimed that while filming “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” Griffith was so distressed by how much shouting was done by the cast and crew between takes he was ready to walk away from television altogether, saying he didn’t think he could handle it. Sheldon assured him that not all shows were run that way—Thomas liked the yelling, so everyone yelled. The moral of this story is that Andy Griffith could barely stand working for one week in an environment he found uncomfortable, yet he was annoyed when Francis Bavier sometimes bristled about things in a work situation she was in for eight straight years. (I’m a fan of Andy Griffith, but I think under the circumstances he could have been a little more empathetic toward Bavier.)
Regardless of how she felt about the cast and the atmosphere on the set, Bavier stayed until the end, and even chose to continue on with the role in TAGS’s follow-up series, Mayberry R.F.D,* thereby cementing her place as one of the most beloved character actresses in American television history.
*For you youngsters/city folk who may not know: R.F.D. stands for Rural Free Delivery. Back in the days before zip codes, house numbers, and such were common in rural areas of the US, mail routes were assigned numbers, and mail was addressed accordingly (e.g., “John Smith, R.F.D. 4, Littletown, Maine”).
During Bavier’s stint on TAGS, many interesting things happened in her life, I’m sure. I’m only going to mention two of them here: 1. according to the Associated Press, Bavier met and made friends with some Siler City, North Carolina, residents in 1963 when she participated in Duke University Medical Center’s Rice Diet program. 2. In 1967 Bavier earned a well-deserved Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Comedy.
Except for a 1974 cameo in the movie Benji (in which she went back to playing a generic character: Lady with the Cat), after Mayberry R.F.D. went off the air (yet another highly rated victim of the “rural purge”), Bavier quit the business, pulled up stakes, and moved to Siler City, North Carolina. Perhaps she was trying to capture in real life the close-knit community spirit evoked by The Andy Griffith Show.
While in retirement Bavier volunteered much of her time to the Christmas Seal and Easter Seal Societies, as well as other charitable organizations. She was forced to stop when her health began to deteriorate.
I’m not going to delve into the opinions many people have about Bavier’s behavior in her later years, except to say that just because someone prefers to stay home instead of doing a lot of socializing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he/she is a recluse or is afraid to leave his/her home. Bavier had said in an interview that she found it difficult dealing with the fact that she was so identified by the public as her TAGS/Mayberry R.F.D. character, she felt as if to others she no longer existed as Frances Bavier, the person. Maybe she just got tired of people calling her Aunt Bee and asking her if she ever learned how to make a decent jar of pickles.
On November 22, 1989, Bavier was admitted to Chatham Hospital and spent two weeks in their coronary care unit. She was discharged on December 4, but not to recuperate.
December 6, 1989, was a sad day in Mayberry. Bavier died at her home that evening, just before 7:30 p.m., a mere eight days shy of her 87th birthday. On her death certificate, immediate causes of death were listed as congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction, coronary artery disease, and atherosclerosis, with other contributing factors noted as breast cancer, arthritis, and COPD. Yikes. The poor lady must have suffered a lot. Stop crabbing about her messy house.
Bavier was cremated and buried at Oakwood Cemetery, which was just a short distance from her home. The services were handled by the Smith and Buckner Funeral Home, which was also just a short distance from her home.
She left an estate of about $700,000. Most of it she bequeathed to a hospital foundation, but she earmarked $100,000 of it to be put into a trust fund to benefit the Siler City, North Carolina, police force.
After her death, Griffith told just about anyone who would listen that he and Bavier had reconciled shortly before she died, and that Bavier admitted that she had been the cause of the friction. Could be true.
Jim Nabors, who played Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show for a couple of years before getting his own series, said of Bavier, ″She was always one of my favorite people. I am a better person for having known her.”