Skip to main content

A television show rarely captures the hearts of America as much as I Love Lucy did in the 1950s. The long-running situational comedy brought laughter into households around the country as viewers tuned in to watch the zany antics of the talented cast of performers.

Lucille Ball received top billing, but it was her loyal sidekick, Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance), with whom female viewers connected most. Her ordinary appearance set her apart from her younger, prettier co-star.

It was hard for Vance to embrace the character, but she gave it her all and did everything she had to do to make it work — including daily therapy.

The classic sitcom ‘I Love Lucy’ was adored by viewing audiences

Actor Vivian Vance at the time of her appearance in the television series I Love Lucy.
Vivian Vance | John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

I Love Lucy revolves around wacky housewife Lucy and her Cuban husband, bandleader Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz). The real-life husband and wife team worked so well with one another that they secured a spot in classic television sitcom history.

The duo became onscreen besties with their upstairs neighbors, Fred (William Frawley) and Ethel Mertz. The couples kept viewers tuning in every week with one zany adventure after another.

The original 30-minute episode aired in 1951 on CBS and was the first situational comedy filmed in front of a live audience. IMDb explained, “Many times, the wacky episode stories revolved around Lucy recruiting Ethel into endless hilarious situations and with their male counterparts Ricky and Fred catching them and exposing how ridiculous their actions really are.”

Ethel Mertz was the most beloved comedic sidekick on television

Vance was born Vivian Roberta Jones in 1909. The Kansas native moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1930 to pursue an acting career. She began working under the name of Vance, gaining attention from local theater performances.

In 1932, she moved to New York City amidst overwhelming support from residents of the small town that felt she deserved a shot at fame and fortune on Broadway.

Vance worked for several years as a nightclub singer and chorus line performer, waiting for her shot at something more. She eventually became the understudy for Ethel Merman, working on films, such as Red, Hot and Blue with legendary actor Bob Hope.

In 1945, after finishing production with Danny Kaye on Broadway, Vance experienced a nervous breakdown. She left the entertainment industry, not coming back until 1950 when she decided to give regional theater another try.

During the intermission of a stage production of The Voice of the Turtle, Vance signed on to play the part of Ethel MertzProducers were so enamored with her performance they knew she was the perfect fit for I Love Lucy.

Transforming into Ethel every day was not easy for Vance


How ‘I Love Lucy’ Inspired ‘That ’70s Show’

Lucy and Ethel had undeniable onscreen chemistry that audiences loved. Geoffrey Mark, the author of The Lucy Book, said both women “were tremendous actresses who knew how to play comedy and knew how to play a farce because on I Love Lucy things that shouldn’t have happened, did.”

To make her character believable, Vance had to transform her physical appearance. She dyed her hair and wore tight-fitting clothes to appear heavier.

Closer Weekly explained, “Miss Vance, when she wasn’t playing Ethel, was in fact a very sexy woman, but she was willing to look the fool and was willing to give the show what it needed to succeed. And she went to therapy every morning, five days a week before coming to the set to work so that her head could be in the right place, and she could focus on the work in front of her. Andtake the crap she had to take from Bill Frawley. And it took Ms. Ball a while, but she realized what she had in Vivian.”

For six seasons, Vance embraced her character until the show ended in 1957. She developed a close relationship with Ball, and the two went on to work together on many various projects.