Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Pies, Co-Stars, Baseball and Bill Frawley

The show may have been called I Love Lucy, but viewers loved the whole regular cast. And this viewer loved Bill Frawley.

Somehow, you could see right through Fred Mertz and somehow knew the guy who played him was a grumbling old grouse. Frawley didn’t like much of anything. He enjoyed professional sports, especially baseball. He loved his independence. He liked acting and some of the people he worked with (including the Three Sons, as in My). And that seems to have been about it.

It’s no secret Frawley had little time for his “honeybunch,” Vivian Vance. But Frawley adhered to the old-style actors’ code of conduct that you behave professionally at all times on set because you’re playing to an audience, and the audience comes first, second and last. The dissention was revealed in an Associated Press column of March 22, 1960. What’s interesting about that is the A.P. is staid bastion of journalism. It’s no gossip rag. Yet it felt comfortable reporting on this particular show biz insider story. There are many open secrets in Hollywood but not too many that would find their way into mainstream print. This one did.
‘I Love Lucy’ Sidekicks Didn’t Get Along Either

AP Movie-TV Writer
HOLLYWOOD (AP) — Now that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have split, it can be revealed that their TV sidekicks, Vivian Vance and William Frawley, didn’t get along either.
Viv and Bill played Ethel and Fred Mertz on “I Love Lucy,” and TV never had a funnier, more smooth-working pair of supporting players. But their smoothness together was apparently all professional.
“We weren’t the happiest pair in the world,” said Bill with his customary frankness. “I knew Lucy real well before the show started. Desi not so well. I never heard of Vance. She came up like a mushroom.”
When I told him Vivian was going back to the stage now that the “I Love Lucy” team has disbanded. Bill replied:
“That’s okay with me. It doesn’t matter one iota to me. She could go to Budapest and I wouldn’t care.” He added, however, that he believed she was a fine performer. Informed of Bill’s remark, Vivian asked, “Was he drunk?” Told he didn’t seem to be, she commented:
Not Best-Mated Pair
“Bill and I got alone fine— like a couple of Irish. We worked together, fought together, cried together and made up together. I think we did very well, considering we were not the best-mated pair in the world.”
Their co-workers agree that the pair acted professionally in their relations with each other. There were no scenes, no name-calling. But the coolness between them was always apparent. That made their TV-screen bickering all the more realistic. But it also made their lovey-dovey scenes more difficult.
Bill was the loner in the troupe. He remained apart from the Ball-Arnaz troubles.
“I never get mixed up with people’s domestic problems.” he said. “I saw the end coming, but I didn't ask questions. I find you can usually learn more by sitting around and listening.”
Vivian has been close to Lucille ever since the series began. So she was aware of the troubles between the Arnazes.
“It was tragic,” she sighed. “But then, my life has been tragic, too.” Last April, she divorced her husband of 18 years, actor Philip Ober, amid much recrimination on both sides. She now lives alone, as does Bill.
Both feel no remorse that the series is over. Vivian: “I’ve had it. Nine years on one show is enough. It’s nice just to sit back and watch the residual money roll in.”
Bill: “I’m not exactly unhappy the series folded. I’ll never be identified with anything greater but enough is enough.”
His own plans include a new TV series which may be announced this week. At sixty-seven, he doesn’t seem concerned by the prospect of more hard work, in fact views the new series as “delightful.” First, he’s going to visit New York for the first time since 1951 and watch the Yankees open their season.
Vivian’s plans are tied up with the theater. She did “Marriage-go Round” with Francis Lederer at Palm Beach, is set for “Here Today” at Chicago in May. “The entire two weeks is sold out,” she reported. “That’s the power of TV.”
Frawley never shied away from giving an honest answer or opinion. One of my favourite Frawley interviews is in the syndicated TV Key column of February 27, 1959. Lucille Ball is best-known for the physical comedy she did on I Love Lucy. Vivian Vance had to pull it off, too, when the script dragged her into one of Lucy Ricardo’s stunt. You don’t think of the men doing any of that sort of thing; Fred Mertz seemed to stand around with his hands in his pockets a lot. But that isn’t what really happened in the mind of Bill Frawley.
Desilu to Star William Frawley

William Frawley, better known as Fred Mertz, a man who prizes money above friendship on the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz series, has been coaxed by boss Desi to step out of character for the Desilu Playhouse drama, “Comeback,” a little League baseball story with Dan Duryea on Monday.
“The boss, in between golf rounds, asked me to do it,” Frawley told me at rehearsal, “and since it’s about the game I love, I agreed. At least no one is going to throw a pie at me on this show.”
That’s only because Lucille Ball isn’t in the cast. "She loves slapstick, you know, especially pie throwing,” Frawley said and chuckled. “Listen, in 67 years of acting I never had to suffer such indignities as I put up with on the Lucy series.
“I used to complain, but everyone, including creator Jess Oppenheimer, only laughed at me.
Pie Throwing
“We had one show where Lucy ordered pies to be throw in rehearsal. She liked to practice. ‘You know, just so we'll be sure we won't miss,’ she’d say. And then, wham — She even ordered an extra one and I got in right in the face.”
When Frawley didn’t care for a pie in the face or his head dunked in chocolate, he rather liked all the silly costumes the gang appeared in. He’s particularly fond of his trademark, the long night shirt and his ridiculous sleeping cap.
"When our writers ran out of costumes and gags they turned to animals. Our stage was like a farm and occasionally had the odor of one. We had cows, chickens, the smartest horse in the world, a baby elephant and so-on.”
Tennessee Ernie
When animals lost their charm, guest stars were called in. Frawley was most taken with Tennessee Ernie. “He came in, placid like, saying words like ‘Bent Foork.’ Within a minute we were all talkin’ that way. He’s a dandy. Likes everyone.
“Why, I was on his show and crowds were waiting for him after the performance. He talked to ‘em all. Was kind and polite. He’s so nice. Why he’ll never die.” Frawley paused a moment and added, “and he never should.”
After some 200 Lucy shows and five specials a year for Westinghouse, Frawley is content to sit back and rest between specials. He stepped out to Santa Anita a couple of times this winter with cronies George Weiss of the New York Yankees and manager Casey Stengel, and that’s enough for him.
Baseball Fan
A great baseball fan, Frawley proudly showed me a 1952 World Series watch given him by the Yankees. He’s been a World Series regular, and can now see major league baseball when the Dodgers play in the Coliseum. But he refused to go last year to watch the Bums in the crazy field.
“I told them long ago the Los Angeles coliseum was a lousy place to play ball. And I had to stand by my word.”
Having proved his point, he intends to take in a few games this spring. “Maybe they’ll stone me after fans see this show,” he added “but if ‘Comeback’ helps Little League baseball any, that’s good enough for me.” With that Bill Frawley slowly walked back to work.
Frawley liked Ernie Ford so much that he guest-starred on Ford’s show on November 29, 1957. Frawley enjoyed a whiskey sour for breakfast. Ernie may have, too. And Frawley was right about the ridiculous dimensions of the Colesium for baseball.

Frawley went on from Lucy to a role that would seem to be far from typecasting—as the housekeeper, cook, and child advisor on My Three Sons. He couldn’t cook and never had kids. But, like Fred Mertz, there was enough crustiness to let you know that a part of the real Bill Frawley was on the screen.


  1. When Frawley left MY THREE SONS, the show not only jumped the shark but a whole damn school of 'em!

  2. As you mention he got along so well with the My Three Sons kids, buying them gifts and taking them to lunch. Seemed like a sweet guy once you get past the gruff exterior.