Vivian Vance didn’t know it then, but when she signed up to portray Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy, it would define her career. The series went off the air on May 6, 1957, but the character of Ethel persists in pop culture even today. Feuds marred Vance’s time on the series, but the battle between herself and her co-star William Frawley wasn’t the thing that bothered her the most about being on the series.
Vivian Vance got her start in theater
Vance’s first television role might have been in I Love Lucy, but she had spent years performing. In fact, her theater productions are what helped her land the part of Ethel. She began appearing in theater productions in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1930. From there, she moved on to New York and then California.
I Love Lucy was Vance’s first television production, and while Lucille Ball didn’t initially want her in the role, they eventually grew to be friendly. Following her time on I Love Lucy, Vance joined up with Ball again on The Lucy Show, and attempted a career on the big screen.
Who was Ethel Mertz in I Love Lucy?
Vance’s character, Ethel, and Ball’s character, Lucy Ricardo, became friends when Lucy and her husband, Ricky Ricardo, moved into the brownstone owned by Ethel and her husband, Fred Mertz. Ethel and Lucy regularly found themselves in trouble when Ethel went along with most of Lucy’s wild antics.
Vance’s theater experience was written into the show. In I Love Lucy, Ethel had a career in show business before meeting Ricky and Lucy. She, along with Fred, was involved with Vaudeville before they began managing their apartment building. Ethel, supposedly the older, wiser, and more even-tempered partner in the friendship, could not seem to help but get wrapped up in Lucy’s crazy ideas.
Vivian Vance hated how iconic her character was
Vance didn’t realize it when she took the role, but the part’s ionic nature would haunt her for the rest of her life. According to Country Living, Vance was bothered by the fact that she was constantly called “Ethel” instead of “Vivian.”
According to the publication, Vance gave an up-and-coming star, Kaye Ballard, a piece of advice. She told Ballard, “You must use your own first name because I go through life just being called Ethel Mertz. No one even knows who Vivian Vance was.” Ballard took her advice for at least one show. She starred as Kaye Buell in the show, The Mothers-in-Law, according to IMDb.