I Love Lucy is a TV series that broke barriers and introduced the character of Lucy Ricardo into pop culture. A sassy redhead who was determined to become famous, Lucy was constantly getting into trouble, and usually had her best friend, Ethel Mertz, at her side.
Lucy and Ethel’s friendship eventually became the blueprint for many onscreen female friendships, inspiring people all around the world. Still, there was a very real woman behind the character of Ethel, and as it turns out, it took some time before she and Lucille Ball were able to bond.
When did ‘I Love Lucy’ debut on television?
I Love Lucy made its historic debut on television in 1951. The show, the brainchild of Ball and a group of writers and collaborators, was a long time in the making. Ball had been looking for ways to work with her husband, bandleader Desi Arnaz, for years, and being on a television show with him seemed like the perfect opportunity,
Television producers were taking a gamble casting Ball and Arnaz in a television comedy, but right out of the gate, viewers and critics loved the show, and couldn’t get enough of Ball’s antics as Lucy Ricardo. After the first few months of I Love Lucy, several other performers began standing out as well — including the hilarious actress who played Lucy’s best friend, Ethel Mertz.
Vivian Vance played Ethel Mertz in ‘I Love Lucy’
Vivian Vance was a stage actor who got her start on stages in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before moving to New York City to pursue a career on the Broadway stage. Throughout the ’30s and ’40s, Vance acted and sang, proving her versatility by taking on a variety of roles.
When she decided to audition for I Love Lucy, Vance was taking a big chance — but ultimately, one that paid off. The character of Ethel might have been written as a slightly frumpy, dumpy housewife, but through Vance’s expert comic acting, she became much more.
Far from just being Lucy Ricardo’s partner in crime, Ethel became an instant hit with fans, with many gravitating to her exasperation with her husband, Fred, and thoroughly relating to her desire to make her own mark on the world. Ultimately, the character of Ethel would define Vance’s career, and she went on to work with Ball on several other occasions throughout the remainder of her professional life.
Why did it take Lucille Ball ‘several months’ to recognize Vivian Vance’s expertise?
Even though Vance became a huge star thanks to I Love Lucy, Ball wasn’t initially convinced that the veteran stage actor had what it took to play Ethel Mertz. In fact, historian and writer Geoffrey Mark said: “It took several months of filming for Ms. Ball to realize what she had with Vivian. Which is why, as the show goes on, the Ethel Mertz character gets more and more prominent, because she realized that as well as she and Desi worked together, actually the better team was Lucy and Ethel.”
In fact, Ball became so reliant on working with Vance that for future projects, she called on her old friend to join forces with her. For her ’60s television series The Lucy Show, Ball courted Vance heavily, offering up any salary or contractual demands that Vance required — and eventually, the actress agreed.
Ultimately, Ball and Vance formed a partnership that would live on through the years, inspiring people to this day.