I Love Lucy would probably correctly be identified as being the most popular and beloved television series of all-time. And since it's debut on October 15, 1951, it is probably also the most watched.
Pre-production on the new sitcom wasn't really overly complex. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were set to play the show's main couple, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, and there were only two others in the show's regular cast. These two being Lucy and Ricky's best friends and landlords, Fred and Ethel Mertz.
Okay, let's start at the top- why the names? Where did the monikers Fred and Ethel Mertz come from? The name "Fred" comes from Lucille ball's brother, Fred. The "Ethel" was in honor of Lucy's longtime pal, the famed broadway and Hollywood star, Ethel Merman.
When the show's writers were trying to come up with an appropriate surname for the pair, they started batting around very silly names- like "Throttlebottom." It was writer Madelyn Pugh who came up with "Mertz," a name taken in honor of a doctor who lived down the block from her in her youth in Indianapolis.
When casting for Fred Mertz began, the original choice was radio character actor Gale Gordon. But Gordon was committed to Our Miss Brooks and other radio shows and declined the offer.
William Frawley, a veteran of scores of films, was next on the list, but he could be trouble, was notoriously grumpy, and was a heavy drinker. Desi Arnaz was Frawley's greatest champion, but while he knew of Frawley's comedic talent, he was also aware of Frawley's excess baggage. Arnaz laid down the law and told the 64-year-old veteran that if he missed a performance or caused too many upsets with his boozing, he was history. Frawley, grateful for the much needed gig, was never to disappoint his benefactor.
For the role of Ethel, Lucy had two choices, both old friends- Bea Benederet and Barbara Pepper. But Benederet was committed to The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and Pepper was eliminated because of drinking problems (a bit ironic, since Frawley's identical bugaboo was tolerated).
Vivian Vance, mainly a stage actress, was seen by Arnaz in a play and he hyped her as the perfect Ethel Mertz. Vance thought of herself as a glamour girl and even occasionally played a vamp on stage, but like Lucille Ball herself, who was originally a Goldwyn girl, Vance was to discover that her real forte was comedy. Although Lucy had never heard of Vivian Vance, her husband's word was good enough and Vance signed on.
The show began rehearsals and trouble began almost immediately. At an early rehearsal, Vance confided to ball that Frawley was too old to play her husband. "Nobody will believe I'm married to that old goat," she said to Lucy.
Frawley happened to hear her complaint and this was reputedly the initial slap in the face with a glove. Frawley was, indeed, 22 years Vance's senior, and Vance's discomfort about their relative ages was never to completely go away.
Another factor contributed to Bill and Viv's ever-growing disdain for each other. Vance was a consummate professional, attending rehearsals and knowing her lines cold. Frawley refused to ever rehearse, choosing instead to stay holed up in his dressing room, usually listening to baseball games (he was a huge Yankees fan).
Frawley's usual custom was to get a script and rip out any pages of any scene he did not appear in While Vance was always ready and prepared to film the show, Frawley would go to the taping and often "botch everything up."
Vance was to recall, with justified astonishment, the time Frawley got the script for the episode "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined." Frawley asked if this was next week's script, only to be informed by a furious Vance that it was that week's script, which they were going to film in 15 minutes!
Vance would often make script suggestions, which Frawley would always refuse to go along with. I Love Lucy creator and head writer, Jess Oppenheimer, would be called down to the set to mediate (meaning to get Frawley to come our of his dressing room and cooperate). Frawley would say, "I'll do it for you (Oppenheimer), but not for the witch." (Frawley would actually use a word that rhymes with witch.)
The hatred between the two never dissipated. Instead it festered and grew with each passing episode. Occasionally, the week's script would require Fred and Ethel to kiss. Vance absolutely refused to kiss her "husband," instead doing an "air kiss" (this can easily be seen in the episode "Equal Rights" in the prison scene).
Interestingly, all the hate and disrespect between Frawley and Vance did have one plus factor. It seemed to help make their respective comic deliveries more realistic, more biting- as well as much funnier:
Lucy: "If some other woman were to take Fred away from you, you'd be singing a different tune"
Ethel: "Yeah, 'Happy Days are Here Again.'"
Ethel: "Imagine me, meeting the queen face to face. I'm scared."
Fred: "You're scared? Think of the queen."
Vance was to win TV's first-ever Emmy award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 1953. She was also nominated (but lost) in 1954, 1956, and 1957. Frawley received five consecutive Emmy nominations for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series (1953-1957), but lost each time. Frawley was asked about his Emmy losses and replied; "It didn't surprise me. I knew they didn't know what they were doing when Vivian Vance got one."
After I Love Lucy (1951-1957) and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-1960) had both ended their highly successful runs, CBS offered Frawley and Vance a chance to star in a spin-off series called either Fred and Ethel or The Mertzes. Frawley, always in need of a drinking money stakeout, was willing, but Vance adamantly refused, never wanting to work with her counterpart/nemesis again. This supposedly infuriated Frawley.
Nevertheless, Frawley was soon cast in another CBS sitcom called My Three Sons. And Vance soon reprised her role as Lucy's gal pal in The Lucy Show. Frawley would get malicious joy out of sneaking over to the sound stage where Vance was filming and devilishly dropping or throwing a stack of film canisters loudly, deliberately ruining Viv's scene and causing a re-take.
After their famed days as a TV couple had ended, each performer gave their own take on their relationship:
Frawley: "She's one of the finest gals to come out of Kansas, and I often wish she'd go back there. I don't know where she is now and she doesn't know where I am. That's exactly the way I like it."
Vance: "I loathed William Frawley and the feeling was mutual. Whenever I received a new script, I raced through it, praying that there wasn't a scene where we had to be in bed together."
William Frawley died in 1966 at the age of 79, after seeing a movie and walking back to his hotel. When she heard the news, Vivian Vance was dining in a restaurant. Her reputed reply to the news was: "Champagne for everybody!"
Many know of this legendary Hollywood anecdote. But not as many know of Vivian Vance's other statement regarding the death of her TV husband. "There's a great big amusing light going out in this world," she said.
William Frawley was never to hear these kind, magnanimous words. Too bad.
Vivian Vance passed away in 1979. She was 70.