Bondi was born as Beulah Bondy in Valparaiso, Indiana, the daughter of Eva Suzanna (née Marble), an author, and Abraham O. Bondy, who worked in real estate. Bondi began her acting career on the stage at age seven, playing the title role in the playLittle Lord Fauntleroy in a production at the Memorial Opera House in Valparaiso, Indiana. She graduated from the Frances Shimer Academy (later Shimer College) in 1907, and gained her Bachelors and Masters degrees in oratory at Valparaiso University in 1916 and 1918.
She made her Broadway debut in Kenneth S. Webb's "One of the Family" at the 49th Street Theatre on December 21, 1925. She next appeared in another hit, Maxwell Anderson's "Saturday's Children" in 1926. It was Bondi's performance in Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Street Scene," which opened at the Playhouse Theatre on January 10, 1929, that brought Bondi to the movies at the advanced age of 43. Her debut movie role was as "Emma Jones" in Elmer Rice's Street Scene (1931), which starred Sylvia Sidney, and in which Bondi reprised her stage role, followed by "Mrs. Davidson" in Rain (1932), which starred Joan Crawford and Walter Huston.
Bondi began her acting career as a young child in theater, and after establishing herself as a stage actress, she reprised her role in Street Scene for the 1931 film version. She played supporting roles in several films during the 1930s, and was twice nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She played the mother of James Stewart in four films, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
She continued acting into her later years, and won an Emmy Award for an appearance in the television series The Waltons in 1976.
She was one of the first five women to be nominated for an Academy Award in the newly-created category of "Best Supporting Actress" for her work in The Gorgeous Hussy, although she lost the award to Gale Sondergaard. Two years later, she was nominated again for Of Human Hearts, and lost again, but her reputation as a character actress kept her employed.
She would most often be seen in the role of the mother of the star of the film for the rest of her career, with the exception of Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) as the abandoned Depression-era 'Ma' Cooper.
She often played mature roles in her early film career even though she was only in her early 40s. Bondi played James Stewart’s mother in four films: It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts and Vivacious Lady. In 1940 Bondi played Mrs. Webb, mother of two children, in the Thornton Wilder classic Our Town.
Her television credits include Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Howard Richardson's Ark of Safety on the Goodyear Television Playhouse.
Bondi appeared with Jan Clayton in "The Prairie Story" on NBC's Wagon Train, an episode written by Jean Holloway, which examines how the forbidden prairie, particularly the strong wind, plays havoc on the lives of the women headed west. This theme is also examined in the novel The Wind by Dorothy Scarborough. The episode aired on February 1, 1961, three months after the death of Ward Bond.
Bondi made her final appearances as Martha Corinne Walton on The Waltons in the episodes "The Conflict" (September 1974) and "The Pony Cart" (December 1976). She received an Emmy award for her performance in the latter episode. When her name was called, it first appeared that she was not present, but she received a standing ovation as she walked slowly to the podium, from which she thanked the audience for honoring her while she was still living.
Despite the fact that she was known for playing mother figures, Bondi never married in real life. She died from pulmonary complications caused by broken ribs suffered when she tripped over her cat on January 11, 1981, at the age of ninety-one.