Lucy and Ricky Ricardo may have been the main characters of the hit 1950s series I Love Lucy, but the show wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without their landlords, Fred and Ethel Mertz. Portrayed by stars Vivian Vance and William Frawley. Fred and Ethel beloved supporting characters on the series that were always bickering and causing trouble for Lucy and Ricky. Behind the scenes, this bickering mirrored in the relationship between the stars portraying them. Join Facts Verse as we explore why Vivian Vance celebrated the death of William Frawley.
By the time that veteran vaudeville actor William Frawley cast on the beloved 1950s series I Love Lucy. The actor had been working in the entertainment industry for decades. And had developed a bit of a negative reputation for himself as both an alcoholic and a short-tempered curmudgeon. It was this curmudgeon quality that made the actor perfect to portray the character of Fred Mertz on the series.
Although I Love Lucy functioned predominantly as a showcase for the talents of real-life married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It’s hard to deny the impact of characters Fred and Ethel Mertz upon the television audience. While William played the character of Fred, a much younger actress by the name of Vivian Vance played the character of Ethel Mertz. Although Vivian over 20 years William’s junior, makeup and homely clothing used to make the actress look older and unattractive.
Prior to taking on the role of Fred Mertz, William Frawley had fallen out with numerous figures in the entertainment industry due to his alcoholism and generally poor behavior on the set of productions. Fred would have a similar falling out on the set of I Love Lucy over the course of that show’s production. And that falling out was with on-screen wife Vivian Vance. Just as Fred and Ethel Mertz were always bickering on the series, William and Vivian were always bickering on set.
William Frawley was born on February 26, 1887. During his childhood years, he sang in his church’s choir. However, this stint as a choirboy was the only predilection for performance that William exuded up until later in his adulthood. Before turning his sights to vaudeville performing in his adult years, William worked as a stenographer and a court reporter.
Alongside his brother Paul, William decided to leave the business world behind and form a vaudeville duo. The duo found modest success, and William decided that his future was officially in show business. In 1914, William married to a fellow vaudeville performer by the name of Edna Louise Broedt. After tying the knot, William and Edna worked together as a vaudeville duo for well over a decade. Only putting their professional relationship to an end as a result of their divorce in 1927. By that point, William Frawley had already been working as a performer for a few decades.
Soon after divorcing from his first wife, William Frawley went on to make his debut as a performer on Broadway. Now forced to work with other people besides his wife and brother. it was here that William’s bad behavior first started to become noticeable. In 1928, William was performing in a production by the name of She’s My Baby. And which featured notable performer Clifton Webb. William and Clifton took to disliking each other on the set of the play. When William told Clifton he better watch his mouth or he going to get punched, Clifton refused. William made good on his promise. And subsequently fired from his role due to the fact that Clifton the far bigger star of the two. Still, William went on to find work over the following years, including in film.
In the 1940s, William Frawley showed up in Hollywood and began acting in feature films. Some of the many notable films that the veteran vaudevillian performed in over the course of the decade include Going My Way and Miracle on 34th Street. Both films went on to become classics, though they likely would’ve been major successes with or without William Frawley. In 1947, William appeared alongside Charlie Chaplin in the latter’s film Monsieur Verdoux.
Besides appearing alongside the likes of such notable performers as Bing Crosby and Charlie Chaplin in the aforementioned films. William also found himself routinely cast in movies featuring the beloved comedic duo of Abbott and Costello. Still, even as William managed to find consistent work, his personal life plagued by alcoholism.
William Frawley’s increasingly rampant alcoholism often bled into the star’s professional life. And caused him to clash with other stars while on set. By the 1950s, it seemed that there was little room in the entertainment industry for the aging performer. Few could have predicted that what would become the veteran vaudevillian’s most iconic role was just around the corner. If you’re enjoying this video so far, be sure to hit the like button to show your support! Also, subscribe to the channel if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!
William Frawley was in his 60s when he received the role of Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy. William had actively campaigned for the role after hearing about the project. It was Desi Arnaz who was in charge of casting the characters of Fred and Ethel. Desi knew of William, both in terms of his negative reputation and his talent for playing a vaudevillian curmudgeon. Although Desi was initially hesitant to hire on William to play the role. Desi later claimed that the idea grew on him the more he pictured the actor on the screen.
When it was time for Desi to make his final decision for whom should play the character of Fred Mertz. He ultimately decided that it needed to be William Frawley. However, the offer came with a firm stipulation that William needed to behave himself on the set of the show. In return, William demanded that he needed to get time off of the series in the event that the New York Yankees played the World Series.
After several decades in the entertainment industry, William finally received the role of a lifetime with Fred Mertz. One might think that the actor would’ve been incredibly grateful for the opportunity. But it still seems he carried over much of his sour attitude from the past onto the set of I Love Lucy. William treated stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz with the utmost respect. He could always be found verbally abusing his on-screen wife, portrayed by Vivian Vance.
Although Vivian Vance remained professional over the course of I Love Lucy’s run. William’s behavior on the set of the series made it so that she quickly realized she was not a big fan of the performer. As the show progressed, Vivian became as verbally abusive towards William as he was to her. And the stars’ relationship officially began to mirror that of the characters that they portrayed on the series.
When I Love Lucy came to an end and producers began talking about a potential spin-off focusing on the characters of Fred and Ethel, Vivian wasn’t having any of it. The actress had carried out her tenure on the aforementioned series out of respect for Lucille and Desi. But she had no interested in continuing to perform in any capacity alongside William.
Thanks to the success of I Love Lucy, William Frawley continued to find success in the entertainment industry after that series came to an end. Following the end of the show, William could be found performing on the series My Three Sons in a very similar role to Fred Mertz. Sadly, William’s increasingly rampant alcoholism was continuing to take it’s toll on the aging actor’s health. And it has been rumored that the actor had to have a crewmember poke him in the foot with a stick in order to keep him awake on the set of the show.
Eventually, William’s health got so bad that he could no longer pass his health insurance exam. And meaning that he had to be let go from the series. Following this, the beloved curmudgeon went on to pass away in March of 1966. Dying of a heart attack at the respectable age of 79 years old.
Unlike William Frawley, Vivian Vance didn’t campaign for her role on I Love Lucy. Instead, she was cast in the series out of desperation after Desi Arnaz continually failed to think of anyone to play the part. Desi had found himself at his wit’s end trying to fill the role when a director recommended Vivian to him. Desi hired Vivian after watching her perform for only a few minutes, believing she was perfect for the role.
Although Vivian certainly played the part right, she didn’t look it. Being over 20 years younger than William, Vivian was much more attractive and had to be done up in makeup and homely clothing in order to fit the bill to portray William’s on-screen wife. This made both of the actors angry. It has been said that Vivian Vance had to go to therapy every morning before filming I Love Lucy not only because of William’s verbal abuse. But because she didn’t enjoy having to play the ugly sidekick to Lucille Ball’s main character.
Although the entire production of the series’ run was likely miserable for the actress. Vivian Vance continued performing as Ethel Mertz until I Love Lucy’s end. And continued working with Lucille Ball afterwards. Similarly, William Frawley maintained a particularly positive relationship with Desi Arnaz. And Desi seems to have been one of the few people that mourned William upon his passing. In response to the news of William’s heart attack, Desi took out a newspaper ad in memory of his dear friend. Meanwhile, Vivian Vance reportedly broke out the champagne.
Although William Frawley and Vivian Vance managed to work alongside each other for several years on the hit 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. They grew to hate each other so much by the series’ end that Vivian literally celebrated her former on-screen husband’s death. Now it’s time to hear from you: did you know that Vivian Vance was said to have broken out the champagne upon hearing the news of former on-screen husband William Frawley’s passing. And that Desi Arnaz was initially hesitant about hiring William because the veteran vaudeville performer had such a negative reputation as an alcoholic curmudgeon in the industry. As always, like this video to show your support. And subscribe and hit the notification bell if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!