CBS approached Lucille Ball about turning her popular radio show, My Favorite Husband, into the now-iconic TV show known as I Love Lucy. She would agree with only one condition, that her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, plays her tv husband.
Once the network agreed, the next task was to cast the couple’s best friends and landlords, the Mertzes. The roles eventually went to William Frawley and Vivian Vance.
On-screen, the two bickered and lovingly made fun of each other, but off-set it was a different story. According to Ranker, these two despised each other in real life.
What is ‘I Love Lucy’ about?
Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) is a Cuban bandleader living in New York City with his red-headed wife, Lucy (Lucille Ball).
Lucy is always scheming and looking for ways to perform with Ricky’s band or get into show business. These antics often land her in funny predicaments. Occasionally, Lucy is joined by her best friend, Ethel Mertz, who is married to Fred Mertz, a stubborn, crotchety older man who pinched pennies.
The Mertzes are also the landlords of the building the Ricardos reside. I Love Lucy aired on CBS for six seasons, starting in 1951. It was the number one TV program for four out of six years and is still loved by many.
Who played the Mertzes?
Frawley started out doing vaudeville with his brother in 1910. After this, he performed in comedy acts with his then-wife, Edna Louise Broedt. He then went on to act on Broadway, and in 1932, he moved to Hollywood.
When casting began for I Love Lucy, Ball initially wanted Gale Gordon to portray Fred Mertz since Gordon had worked with her on the radio show. According to Mental Floss, Gordon wanted more money than Desilu could offer.
Frawley and Ball were acquaintances, and he called her to see if he could have a part in the show. CBS knew of Frawley’s heavy drinking and was unsure about hiring him. However, Arnaz met with Frawley and told him if he missed a day of work for anything other than a legitimate illness, he would be written off the show. It is said the Frawley was much like his character, Fred Mertz.
Vance grew up in Kansas and loved acting from an early age. Country Living wrote an article about Vivian and reported that her original name was Vivian Jones; she changed her last name to Vance. When she was 21, Vance moved to New Mexico and performed at the Albuquerque Little Theatre.
In 1932, Vance moved to New York and served as an understudy for the musical Anything Goes. Vance was not the first choice when it came to casting Ethel Mertz. Ball had two other actresses in mind: Bea Benaderet and Barbara Pepper.
Benaderet had already accepted another role, and CBS refused to hire Pepper since she was a known alcoholic. They didn’t want two on the show after hiring Frawley. Marc Daniels, Director of I Love Lucy, discovered Vance while she was acting at a playhouse and recommended her to Arnaz. At first, Ball didn’t like Vance, thinking she was too pretty to be a landlord. However, the two eventually became close friends.
Tensions were high between Frawley and Vance
Frawley overheard Vance tell Ball she thought Fred and Ethel’s marriage was unrealistic. Vance was 22 years younger than Frawley, and she didn’t think anyone would believe that she was married to such an “old coot.”
From then on, tensions snowballed between the two. Vance also called him an “old poop,” and he had a few choice words for her as well. According to some, Vance did not want to ever work with Frawley again, which squashed any Mertz spinoff prospect.
The spinoff would have been a hit as fans loved Fred and Ethel as much as they loved Lucy an Ricky. Fred and Ethel’s quirky persona would have made for great television and could have made the two stars even more iconic in television history.