October 2011


Meet The Mertzes

I Love Lucy minus Ricky and Lucy’s comic foils, Ethel and Fred is unthinkable now. But the Mertzes were not part of the show’s original plan. How that changed, and how two obscure actors became part of one of television’s history’s most beloved casts, is a story unto itself.

When Lucille Ball’s popular half-hour radio show My Favorite Husband was being retooled as a half-hour television show in 1951, several key changes were made in the series’ cast. Most critical was the change in the show’s male lead. Lucy’s radio husband, Richard Denning, who portrayed Minneapolis banker George Cooper, was replaced, at Ball’s insistence, by Lucy’s real-life husband, Desi Arnaz. Originally Ball and Arnaz were to portray a successful show business couple, Lucy and Larry Lopez, but market research results found this an unpopular scenario. Producer-head writer Jess Oppenheimer came up with the idea of portraying the couple as struggling New York bandleader Ricky Ricardo and his ambitious but untalented housewife, Lucy.

Lucille Ball and Richard Denning in the radio show My Favorite Husband, I Love Lucy’s template

However, the characters of Rudolph and Iris Atterbury (respectively, George Cooper’s boss at the bank and Liz Cooper’s best friend), the older neighbor couple that served as comic foils for the Coopers on My Favorite Husband, were eliminated from the I Love Lucy cast when the actors who portrayed them, Gale Gordon and Bea Benadaret, were unavailable owing to other TV commitments. When the I Love Lucy pilot was shot on March 2, 1951, the only other character in the show was Ricky’s talent agent Jerry, played by Jerry Hausner, who had also been an occasional guest on My Favorite Husband. As it turns out, the older Atterburys still figured into Jess Oppenheimer’s plans, as he told one writer: “We could pair them off couple against couple, women against men, or haves against have-nots--all setups which had worked for us on the radio series.”

Jerry the agent became a part-time character, and the Ricardos became tenants in an upper east side apartment owned by Fred and Ethel Mertz, so named for an Indianapolis couple who lived on the same street as Madelyn Pugh, another member of I Love Lucy’s original writing team.

mertzesHow actors William Frawley and Vivian Vance landed their career defining roles is detailed in the following excerpt from Meet The Mertzes, the definitive account of, as the book’s subtitle indicates, “The Life Stories Of I Love Lucy’s Other Couple,” by Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg. The first choice for Fred Mertz, after Gale Gordon, was veteran character actor James Gleason, but he priced himself out of the part, asking for $3,500 a week--Lucy and Desi took a joint salary of $5,000 an episode, which was decreased to $4,000. The early candidates for the Ethel Mertz part were two friends of Ball’s, Mary Wickes, who failed to impress in her audition, and Barbara Pepper, whom Lucy and Desi were wary of because of her drinking habit.

Enter, as Fred Mertz, 64-year-old William Frawley, whose movie career had begun in 1916 with parts in two short silent films after which he went into vaudeville with a partner before returning to film as a character actor in 1933, when he signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. (Though associated with Al Jolson, who made it his trademark number, "My Mammy" was performed first by Frawley as a vaudeville-style act during 1918. Jolson heard the song and performed it for the Broadway show Sinbad. Jolson recorded this song twice and performed it in his three films: The Jazz Singer [1927], The Singing Fool [1928] and Rose of Washington Square [1939].) Over the next decade and a half Frawley appeared in virtually every genre of theatrical film and cultivated a personality close to his own: hard-boiled, irascible, sports loving, tart talking, with a sentimental streak and a taste for alcohol. In 1951, with his career floundering and his finances ebbing, he accepted minor parts on radio and TV shows. After hearing about I Love Lucy, he called Ball, whom he barely knew, and inquired about playing the part of Fred. (In their later years both Ball and Arnaz claimed to have received the fateful call from Frawley.)

Casting Ethel Mertz required some serendipitous convergence as well. With Bea Benadaret, the first choice for the role, committed to The Burns and Allen Show, and Lucy’s second choice, Barbara Pepper, nixed by the network because of her excessive drinking, the I Love Lucy team was stumped, save for director Marc Daniels, who had a hunch about a theater actress he had worked with previously. Daniels took Desi to see a production of the John Van Druten play The Voice of the Turtle, directed by Mel Ferrer, at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, featuring 42-year-old Vivian Vance in the role of Olive Lashbrooke.

In the following excerpt from Meet The Mertzes, authors Edelman and Kupferberg recount the critical casting choices that made William Frawley and Vivian Vance the most unlikely of cultural icons.


‘The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced he was Fred Mertz,’ said Desi Arnaz about the casting of William Frawley

Having heard about I Love Lucy, Frawley, then in his mid-sixties, called to inquire about playing Fred Mertz, and Ball and Arnaz seriously considered him. In later years, each took credit for receiving Frawley’s phone solicitation. In his autobiography, A Book, published in 1976, Arnaz wrote, “I got a call from William Frawley,” and added, “After I hung up I kept seeing his puss and remembering how good he was playing the kind of gruff character he usually played. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced he was Fred Mertz.” Yet in 1984, during a seminar sponsored by the Museum of Broadcasting (now known as the Museum of Television and Radio), Ball explained how Frawley had actually called her. She quoted the actor as telling her, “I understand you’re looking for a type. And I’m interested in doing some television.

“And we saw him,” Ball continued, “and I said, ‘Geez, he’s a great guy. He’s marvelous. Right age and everything.’”

However, CBS-TV officials, and Phillip Morris and its ad agency, were reluctant to cast stocky, bald, cigar-chomping Frawley because of his imbibing habits. “Well, those bastards, those sonsabitches,” Frawley said at the time. “They’re always saying that about me. How the hell do they know, those bastards?”

William Frawley stars in The Yankee Doodler, 1942, a short film directed by two-time Oscar winning director William Moulton (for Best Short Subject, Stairway to Light in 1946, Goodbye, Miss Turlock in 1948) designed to stir up support for America’s WWII efforts.

Despite his reputation, Ball and Arnaz came to like the idea of Frawley playing Fred Mertz and were determined to sign him. In another oft-repeated anecdote, Arnaz and Frawley met at Nickodell’s, a Melrose Avenue restaurant-bar in Hollywood near Paramount Pictures and Desilu that was one of Frawley’s favorite watering holes. Here, Arnaz established the rules for Frawley’s employment on I Love Lucy. If the actor were to miss three workdays for anything but a legitimate reason, he would be permanently written out of the show. In baseball lingo, which sports fanatic Frawley could readily understand, it meant three strikes and he was out, with no appeals to a higher authority. Frawley agreed and I Love Lucy had its Fred Mertz, at an economical salary of $350 per week. Yet to Frawley, who was dead broke, this represented a steady paycheck at more money than he could imagine.

While the irascible Frawley was gratified to have found employment, he also doubted that I Love Lucy would amount to much. “I didn’t think the thing had a chance,” he recalled of its pre-premiere genesis. “We did the lines over and over again, and it was like eating stew every night--stale and not a bit funny.”

Of course, I Love Lucy was a smash. “The show even has revived an interest in me in my old Iowa hometown,” Frawley declared. “People I’d thought had forgotten Bill Frawley have been writing me. The local papers even are doing stories on me.”

In ‘Job Switching,’ Episode 1, Season 2, aired on September 15, 1952, Ricky and Fred, in a swap with their wives, take on the household chores, including an ill-fated cooking venture.

Frawley never once was absent from the I Love Lucy set because of drinking or for any other reason. He was destined to appear as Fred for the show’s entire run.

And he even became fond of his employers. He would affectionately refer to Lucy as “that kid,” and occasionally would call out to Desi, “Hey, Cuban!” “I remember Frawley talking how [how] he loved Desi,” notes actor Don Grady, with whom Bill was to appear on My Three Sons. “And he loved Lucy, too, but he just thought Desi was the living end.”

Yet for the most part, Frawely kept to himself among his co-workers. For example, rather than attend a cast party at Marc Daniels’s home in Laurel Canyon on October 15, 1951, the Monday night of I Love Lucy’s premiere telecast, Frawley opted to return to his suite at the Knickerbocker Hotel and listen to the fights on the radio.

Despite his perfect attendance record, the actor did not stop his heavy drinking during his years on I Love Lucy. It was just that now he imbibed at a low profile, and did his socializing away from the studio. According to Dann Cahn, the sitcom’s editor, Frawley spent most of his on-set time in his dressing room. “He didn’t take part in a lot of the fun and games that would go on,” Cahn states. “Vivian did. There was gret fun and action between Vivian and the crew. She was sociable. She always kidded with me.”

‘You know, he reminds me of someone I used to know.’--William Frawley’s final TV appearance, on The Lucy Show

In Frawley’s off-hours, according to Cahn, he hung out at Musso & Frank, a venerable Hollywood Boulevard eatery that has been in business since 1919. “I’d see him there in the evenings having a couple of martinis,” Cahn notes. “I liked him, and often sat down and had a drink with him, and we just schmoozed.” Two I Love Lucy co-workers with whom Frawley did socialized formally were Marc Daniels, the show’s director, and his wife, Emily--and this only during the first season, after which Daniels, as Emily explains, “left to go do another show for more money.” Every Friday evening during the 1951-52 season, Marc and Emily dined with Frawley at Musso & Frank, “just to have fun,” remembers Emily Daniels.

“Bill would go over to Musso & Frank and sit at the bar with old friends,” adds Bob Weiskopf. “He just hung around and went to the saloons and places where men of his age and with his interests went. He had his buddies, and that was it.”

His on- or off-set habits aside, the bottom line was that, careerwise, I Love Lucy resuscitated Bill Frawley from professional oblivion. After noting that the actor’s career was “spotty” at best and “not earth shaking,” Chuck Stevens, Frawley’s ball player buddy, adds, “And then he got that series, and that thing just ballooned, and assured him of work for a long time.”


vivian vance
Vivian Vance: When Marc Daniels offered the role of Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy, her response was, ‘What do I want to get mixed up in that for? It’s only a television show.’

For many reasons, the role of Ethel Mertz would be difficult to cast. For one thing, she had to look old enough to be the wife of Bill Frawley (who was sixty-four-years-old when hired for the show) yet be young enough to perform all the physical comedy the role was slated to undertake. One potential choice was Mary Wickes, a lanky, sharp-featured forty-one-year-old character actress (and long-time Lucille Ball friend), but she did not pan out. (One reason Wickes gave for not joining the ensemble was her concern that working too constantly with Ball--now as her boss--would strain their off-camera relationship.) Another possibility was Barbara Pepper, a pal of Ball’s for twenty years. They were the same age--thirty-nine--but Pepper was overweight and, from a physical standpoint, perfect for the part. Yet she was known to have an appetite for hard liquor, and Ball and Arnaz did not want two drinkers working under them. So Pepper was vetoed as Ethel Mertz.

“We were really at a loss,” Ball recalled in 1984 at the Museum of Broadcasting. “And so with Bea Benadaret in mind, I had no other picture of anyone. No one seemed to fit.”

On their cross-country trip from New York to Los Angeles, the Mertzes and Ricardos make a stop in Ethel’s home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Ethel entertains the locals with her versions of ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ and, from The Chocolate Soldier, ‘My Hero,’ while Lucy, Ricky and Fred put on their own show behind her back. From ‘Ethel’s Home Town,’ Episode 16, Season 4, January 31, 1955.

On September 3, 1951, I Love Lucy was set to go into rehearsal. As this production date neared, Ethel still had not been cast. Then one evening--in yet another oft-repeated story--director Marc Daniels brought Desi Arnaz and producer-scripter Jess Oppenheimer to the La Jolla Playhouse. Here, Vance was reprising Olive Lashbrooke in Mel Ferrer’s production of The Voice of the Turtle.

The actress may have been a complete unknown to Arnaz and Ball, but Daniels already had directed her and felt she had the right qualities to make a perfect Ethel. “I know that Marc suggested Vivian because he’d known her in New York for quite a while before that,” remembers Emily Daniels, the director’s widow. “Marc thought she’d be marvelous as Ethel Mertz.”

Arnaz, Daniels and Oppenheimer drove to La Jolla, 107 miles south of Los Angeles. Ball did not join them, as she had just given birth to her firstborn, Lucy Arnaz. The date was July 9, 1951, a Saturday evening.

As Oppenheimer noted in his posthumously published memoir, “By the end of the first act, Desi and I agreed that we had found our Ethel Mertz.” At that time, as any I Love Lucy historian can recite, Arnaz declared: “I think we’ve found Ethel.” This determination came about despite the fact that the characters of sophisticated, bitchy Olive Lushbrooke and unaffected Ethel Mertz had very little in common.

Vance’s first instinct was to decline the TV role. “What do I want to get mixed up in that for?” she asked Daniels. “It’s only a television show.” Only after Daniels called her a “goddamned idiot” for not jumping at the opportunity to appear in what he knew would be a sensational series did Vance agree to seriously consider the potential assignment.

A quarter century later, Vance recalled, “I didn’t know what a TV series meant in those days, but it did seem promising if a star like Lucille Ball was going to take a chance, so I agreed to give it thirteen weeks.”

In 1984 Ball reminisced that “it was important to Mr. Oppenheimer and to Desi that I okay the lady… [They] called me back after the first act of Voice of the Turtle and said, ‘Lucy, sight unseen, take our word for it, this girl is wonderful.’ I said, ‘That’s all I want to hear. Drive home carefully. Bring her here, and I’ll see her Monday morning.’” On the other hand, in his autobiography, Desi Arnaz reported that he signed Vance to play Ethel that very evening—also at $350 per week—without consulting Ball. Moreover, Lucy and Viv were not to meet for more than a month.

After completing her weeklong engagement in Voice of the  Turtle, Vance returned to Hollywood and showed up in Jess Oppenheimer’s CBS office to read a scene from the show’s premier episode (which, at the time, was to be “Lucy Thinks Ricky Is Trying to Murder Her”). Present were Oppenheimer, Daniels, Arnaz and Harry Ackerman, general supervisor of Hollywood operations for CBS. Viv read the role of Ethel, while Daniels recited Lucy’s dialogue. All present concurred that Viv would make an ideal Ethel. The deal with Vance was made.

Vance and Ball finally met on September 3, at the initial I Love Lucy rehearsal. All did not begin harmoniously. Desi introduced the pair, and Viv responded with a friendly hello. At first glance Lucy was unimpressed, as she felt that Viv did not have the countenance of a landlady. She was not plump enough to play Ethel, and their hair colors would photograph the same shade in black and white. These, of course, were cosmetic effects, and Vance responded that she looked stocky when photographed and easily cold alter the tint of her hair.

Lucy takes the stand against the Mertzes in ‘The Courtroom,’ Episode 7, Season 2, aired November 10, 1952. The Ricardos buy the Mertzes a new TV set for their wedding anniversary. When Ricky tries hooking it up, the picture tube explodes. In retaliation, Fred marches up to the Ricardo apartment and kicks in their own picture tube. The whole issue ends up in court, the couples make up, and the judge has his own angry encounter with a TV set.

The two actresses finally did click at the meeting--after Lucy saw how terrifically Viv read her lines. As Desi Arnaz later observed, “We could have never found anyone to play Ethel any better or even as well as Vivian Vance did.”

However, at this initial rehearsal, the ground rules of Vance’s and Frawley’s relationships to Ball and Arnaz were ever so subtly established. In an oft-quoted account, as the morning progressed, the I Love Lucy stars began lunching on fried chicken. They chomped away, oblivious to the fact that there had been no lunch break and without thinking of offering to share the victuals with the others.

Finally Frawley spoke up, asking in his inimitable manner, “When do the peons eat around here?”

This underling status is reflected in the CBS press release dated August 31, 1951--four days prior to the rehearsal--which announced to the world the arrival of I Love Lucy. It is headlined, “Lucille Ball and Hubby Desi Arnaz Costarred in New CBS-TV Domestic Comedy, ‘I Love Lucy,’” and concludes, “Basically, the series will revolved about [sic] the hilarious problems arising in a household where the wife is stagestruck, and the orchestra-leader husband doesn’t see eye to eye with her ambitions for a career in show business. …” The release goes on to report that Ball and Arnaz met on the set of the 1940 RKO screen version of the stage musical Too Many Girls, and lists their respective professional credits. There is no mention of William Frawley and Vivian Vance.

It cannot be overemphasized that, at this point in time, I Love Lucy was an unproven commodity, a show that just as easily might have faded to obscurity. Had this been the case, Ball could have resumed her film career, Arnaz might have arranged a series of tours across the United States with his band--and Frawley and Vance surely would have been thrust back into anonymity and oblivion.

As its premier approached, those involved in the show were uncertain as to how it would be received. Emily Daniels recalls that, at the party held at her and her husband Marc’s Laurel Canyon home on October 15, the night of the sitcom’s debut. “Everyone watched [the show], and the only one laughing was [Vance’s husband] Phil Ober! At the end, Lucy in particular was saying, ‘Oh, God, I don’t know. Do you think it’s gonna go?’ And Phil--who was the only one who hadn’t been in rehearsal or read the script--he was just jubilant. He thought it was fantastic.”

After agreeing that all those present (excepting Ober) were so close to the show that they had lost their critical objectivity, Daniels succinctly adds, “But you must remember, at that point it was just another television show.”

However, this status was fated to be short-lived. And while Ball and Arnaz were the headliners and Frawley and Vance the subordinates, the contributions of all were immediately acknowledged by audiences and critics alike. And, from its debut episode, I Love Lucy was a smash hit. The Variety reviewer, after calling it “one of the slickest TV entertainment shows to date” and praising the “full-blown exposition of Miss Ball’s comedic talents,” added that “Arnaz, Bill Frawley and Vivian Vancec contribute major assists as the show’s four personality components.” The Hollywood Reporter chimed in, dubbing Ball “America’s No. 1 comedienne,” Arnaz “the perfect foil for her screwball antics,” Frawley “superb as the landlord of the Arnaz apartment,” and Vance “a trouper who knows her way around both lines and situations.”

More important, by the end of I Love Lucy’s first season (1951-52), more than eleven million housholds were tuning in to the show on Monday evenings at 9 p.m.

The Ricardos and Mertzes set out on their cross-country drive from New York to Los Angeles on ‘California, Here We Come,’ Episode 13, Season 4, aired January 10, 1955

So from here on in, the diminished status of Frawley’s film career was rendered irrelevant. “I don’t mind admitting my movie career was having a bit of a lull when Lucy came along,” he declared in 1953. “Now the movie moguls are after me again and somehow I can’t help but gloat inwardly that I can’t make movie while I’m playing Fred Mertz.”

Meanwhile, Vance was touted in a profile in the December 28, 1952, edition of the Kansas City Star, which noted that “the former Vivian Jones of Independence and Cherryvale, Kansas…has done much to bring I Love Lucy its No. 1 rating.”

“In a little more than a year,” the anonymously written piece continued, “TV has made the former Vivian Jones…a big-name star… It looks as if [she] has a lifetime job in TV’s top show.”

In the La Jolla Playhouse program for The Voice of the Turtle, the names of costars Mel Ferrer and Diana Lynn had ben above the title, with Vance’s listed below. Yet after winning fame as Ethel Mertz, Vance would be the draw. Never again would she have to settle for secondary billing because she was not as well known as her fellow actors. This was precisely the case in 1953, during her summer break from I Love Lucy, when she returned to the La Jolla Playhouse to star with Ferrer in the musical Pal Joey.

Meet the Mertzes is available at www.amazon.com

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