Wednesday 26 February 2014

Tales of Fred Mertz

Pat O’Brien once told columnist Leonard Lyons about the vaudevillian who went to Hollywood for a screen test. The director studied the song-and-dance man for a while and then suggested: “Because of the sharp lights on your forehead, do you mind if we touch It up a bit with a patch of hair? It would make you look less bald.” . . . “Mister,” said the actor, “if you want an actor, take me. If you want hair, take a lion.”

I’ll bet you can picture the vaudevillian saying it, too. He was Bill Frawley.

The old grump would be 127 today.

Can you picture Frawley getting up, having a whiskey sour for breakfast, not taking crap from anyone all day and then spending his time at the races, fights or baseball game? It’s easy to picture because it’s all true. Frawley didn’t even take crap from the Los Angeles Dodgers (Frawley had been a part owner of the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League). Variety once reported the team did something to irk him and he responded by never going back to see a game ever again.

Entertainment reporting changed from the time O’Brien told that story to Lyons at Toots Shore’s in 1944. When Frawley landed his immortality on “I Love Lucy” in 1951, gossip columnists filled their allotment with a bunch of little items about the stars. Within a decade, a new breed of writer had arrived, the news reporter without entry into the decaying, back-scratching Hollywood star system. They did profiles, using their space as a repository of answers from a conversation with only one actor plugging their latest venture. So it was Frawley got more ink when he was signed for “My Three Sons” in 1960 than his whole time in the ‘50s as Lucy Ricardo’s landlord.

It’s hard to limit myself from the selection of columns featuring Frawley’s early ‘60s grumblings, but here are only two. The first is by Hal Humphrey, published on August 8, 1960; I believe he was syndicated from one of the Los Angeles papers at the time.

Frawley Sort Of Hates To Let Fred Mertz (The Landlord) Die
Hollywood—Bill Frawley isn't sure that he wants to be turned into a nice, warm-hearted old geezer with three grandsons to mother. It's going to spoil a character image which Bill spent seven years building up with a legion of fans.
"That Fred Mertz role in the 'Lucy' show has made me the hero of all husbands," explains Bill, a bit wistfully "Why just last week in Detroit a fellow came up to me on the street and said ‘Mertz, I've just gotta buy you a drink . . . the way you tell that Ethel off is beautiful.’"
Bill was in Detroit to do a commercial film for Chevrolet, which is sponsoring "My Three Sons," the new TV series which stars Fred MacMurray and Bill. The three "sons" are played by Tim Considine, Don Grady and Stanley Livingstone.
"I play Michael Francis O’Casey in this one," says Bill. "MacMurray is my widowed son-in-law with the three kids, and I guess you'd call me the superintendent of the foundry.
"This kid thing is kind of strange for me, you know. I never had any of my own and always shared the late W. C. Fields' attitude toward the little monsters. No, really, I like kids, if they aren't snot-noses," adds Bill, on second thought.
Until June of this year Bill still was under contract to Desi Arnaz, but Bill signed up with producer Don Fedderson for "My Three Sons" before that deal expired.
"Desi was a little irate about it," Bill reports, "and I shouldn't have done it that way, but everything is all right now."
In spite of their long association (198 "Lucy" films, plus the specials), Bill and Desi had their misunderstandings—most of them over money. Bill, naturally, always wanted more.
Like Groucho Marx, Bill never liked the idea of a performer trading himself cheap, just for the publicity. Years ago he one refused to go on Louella Parsons' old "Hollywood Hotel" radio show and re-create a movie role.
“There's no compensation,” cooed Miss Parsons.
“Then there is no Frawley,” growled Bill.
The movie studio involved in this donnybrook ultimately prevailed upon the stubborn Bill, and Miss Parsons was saved the trouble of sharpening her stiletto.
Jack Paar had tried to get Bill on his late, late show, but when Bill was informed it paid only scale he huffed and puffed the offer right back into Paar's office. When I reminded him that his former “Lucy,” mate, Vivian Vance, had made several Paar appearances, he snorted: “That’s her business.”
Bill is very happy about his upcoming association with Fred MacMurray. They first met and worked together in a 1933 movie titled “Car 99” about the Michigan State police. Later Bill played Fred’s manager when the latter was a bandleader in a Paramount epic called “Princess Comes Across.”
“Fred is a marvelous guy,” attests Bill. “He’s got all the money that the Bank of America hasn’t got, but he’s still a nice guy. If the series isn’t a hit it will be my fault.”
Peter Tewksbury, producer-director of “My Three Sons,” already has run into some resistance in his attempt to domesticate Bill who seems to be allergic to working in a kitchen.
“I’m not a prop comic, that’s all,” Bill explains. “Pete has me pulling things out of the oven, stirring something and trying to talk. I can’t tell a gag and be skinning a cat and tossing a bowling ball at the same time.” A guy who has been around as long as Bill Frawley is bound to find a way, and apparently no one is listening too hard to these banshee wails. Incidentally, Bill appears in the pink of condition these days, but this fact he blows down, too.
“It’s just a good Simonize job. Inside, where the motor is, there’s a hell of a lot of carbon,” Bill booms.

And this syndicated column is from February 24, 1961. The surprising part is seeing that tales of the Frawley-Vance feud were around even when the two were still alive. And he had shaved five years off his age in his chat with Henry Galante’s pen name.

Frawley Still Irascible
TV Time Staff Writer

Hollywood—On Monday, William Frawley will celebrate his 69 birthday. But he denied in a voice like a rusty buzz saw that time has mellowed him.
“I am today the same as I was at 20,” he growled with a salty epithet.
But he is happier in TV.
“Can you imagine me in silk pantaloons and turban as the keeper of a harem?” he asked. “Well, that was what the movies threw at me. Most all my roles were phony, and I was miserable playing them. Television, now, that was a Godsend.”
As Fred Mertz for eight years on the “I Love Lucy” series, he was actually playing the real-life Bill Frawley. Because of his off-camera feud with Vivian Vance, Lucille Ball actually encouraged him to put more sting into his camera battles with Vivian, thus the appellation “the battling Mertzes.”
“I guess I kind of miss Vivian,” he said.
And it's not generally known that Frawley was signed even before Fred MacMurray for the My Three Sons series. In the “My Three Sons” series the role of “Bub,” chief cook, bottle washer and “den mother” to three grandsons was created with Frawley specifically in mind. Except for Bub’s prowess in the kitchen, Frawley admits the character is true to life.
“It’s embarrassing,” he snorts, “when women write in for my prune whip recipes. I can't even boil an egg!”
But Frawley may have mellowed in one respect. He adores the youngest of the “Sons,” little Stanley Livingstone, who literally hangs on his trousers. “I just love that kid so much, I want to carry him on my back wherever I go.”
It was not always thus. Several years ago, when the Danny Thomas series visited the “Lucy” series, little Rusty Hamer badgered Frawley. Frawley finally grabbed him and said: “Maybe you're really a good kid, but we don't see eye to eye. Now you stay away from me, the farther the better, or I'll give you a swift kick in the pants!”
The undaunted moppet retorted: “I'll tell Danny just what you said!” But the even more undaunted Frawley said: “You do that, and if he doesn't like it, tell him I have a swift kick for him, too!”
Rusty told Danny, who listened silently, then advised Rusty, softly: “You and I both better heed what he says, son. He’ll do it!!”

Frawley admitted to Cynthia Lowry of the Associated Press (who reported on the whiskey sour breakfast) that “My Three Sons” was a bit of a mystery show. MacMurray’s contract stated he was to be on set for a maximum of only 14 weeks. All of MacMurray’s scenes were shot at once and the rest of the season was shot around him.

A few of the “Sons” have appeared on Stu Shostak’s internet radio show (Wednesdays at 4 p.m. Pacific). Stu has a remarkable ability he may not even know he has. He always manages to get interesting or fascinating stories from his guests so even if you’re not into the topic being discussed, it’s worthwhile tuning in just to hear what they have to say. I’ve never been a fan of “My Three Sons” but I’ve listened to how the former sons have described Bill Frawley. They all loved him. And one of the saddest things in Hollywood was mentioned by, I think, young Mr. Livingstone; that Frawley had to leave the show because he couldn’t get the necessary health insurance. Frawley had prostate and heart problems.

Bill Frawley died March 3, 1966. The title of his most famous show was “I Love Lucy.” But, you know, I think everyone loved Bill Frawley, too.

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