‘I Love Lucy’: Lucille Ball’s First Choice for the Mertzes Was Not William Frawley and Vivian Vance

Before I Love Lucy came to television, Lucille Ball starred on a hit radio show, “My Favorite Husband.” She portrayed Liz Cooper, wife of George Cooper, played by Richard Denning.

With people turning to television for entertainment, CBS wanted to sign Ball to a TV series. To cement the deal, the network had to accept her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, to play her onscreen husband, Ricky Ricardo.

While Ball got her way for that, her first choice to portray their on-screen friends didn’t work out.

Converting ‘My Favorite Husband’ from radio to TV

Ball’s radio show, “My Favorite Husband,” aired from July 1948 – March 1951. The show revolved around the lives of the Coopers.

George’s boss, Rudolph Atterbury, was played by a couple of different actors before Gale Gordon taking on the role, according to Fandom. His wife, Iris, was played by Bea Benaderet.

Beyond Rudolph being George’s boss, the couples were also close friends. The cast also included the Coopers’ maid Katy (Ruth Perrott) and George’s mother, Leticia Cooper (Eleanor Audley).

Because of Ball’s demand for Arnaz to be her on-screen husband, her television show received a new name, I Love Lucy. Some members of the radio team were able to make the jump to the television show.

One example was head writer Jess Oppenheimer. In the new format and with changes to the premise of the show, the characters of Lucy and Ricky were to get new friends, the Mertzes. Ball wanted actors Gordon and Benaderet to play the new roles.

But Gordon had other radio program commitments earning him thousands of dollars per week, according to Closer Weekly. Meeting the pay he requested was too expensive for Desilu Productions and its budding television show.

Benaderet had signed for a role on The Burns and Allen Show. A search for the Mertzes was on.

Casting Ethel and Fred Mertz

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It was I Love Lucy director, Marc Daniels, who suggested Vivian Vance for the role of Ethel Mertz. “I have this woman I think would be great,” Daniels pitched to Oppenheimer and Arnaz. The three went to see Vance performing in a production of The Voice of the Turtle, in La Jolla, California. During the play’s intermission, Vance was signed to play Ethel. 

At the age of 64, former Vaudevillian turned film actor, William Frawley, had sought out the part as Fred, negotiating and getting the part, according to Groovy History. He was 22 years older than Vance and their first meeting wasn’t pretty.

When Vance appeared for rehearsal she asked, “Who’s that old coot sitting over there?” Arnaz replied, “That’s William Frawley; he’s going to play your husband, honey.”

It is said that Frawley overheard the conversation when Vance claimed he was old enough to play her grandfather, leading to an instant distaste for his onscreen partner to be. That dislike was written into the show and it worked, turning them into characters their fans adored.

The success of the Mertzes and ‘I Love Lucy’

Pictured from left is Vivian Vance (as Ethel Mertz);William Frawley (as Fred Mertz)
Pictured from left is Vivian Vance (as Ethel Mertz);William Frawley (as Fred Mertz) | CBS via Getty Images

Despite, Vance and Frawley’s downright hatred of each other, I Love Lucy aired for six seasons from 1951 through 1957. While Ball was undoubtedly the star of the show, it is hard to envision it with a different couple portraying the Mertzes, even if it had been Gordon and Benaderet.

When Ball first met Vance, she asked what part Vance was there to read for. Vance replied she was already hired to play Ethel. “You can’t play Ethel. You’re my age. You have the same color hair. You have an attractive figure. You’re pretty.” In response, Vance asked just what Ethel was to look like.

Soon, the normally attractive Vance had redressed herself to look plump and disheveled with yellow-blonde hair and dark roots, and an overdone perm. Frawley, of course, found it pretty easy to pick on his on-air wife. In fact, Vance went to therapy at the beginning of each workday to get her through the show. There is no doubt that their dedication, especially by Vance, played a huge role in I Love Lucy‘s popularity.

It should be noted that My Favorite Husband did make a brief appearance on television. The show lasted three seasons, from 1953-1955, and starred Barry Nelson as banker George Cooper, and Joan Caufield as his wife, Liz.