Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Finding Harry Morton

Imagine how much I Love Lucy would have been different if Bill Frawley had quit the show like he wanted to do after two seasons.

Frawley had been around since the vaudeville days but Lucy gave him unprecedented exposure—and offers with big dollar signs. But the shrewd Desi Arnaz, it seems, had him tied up contractually.

One of the roles dangled at Frawley was one that seemingly nobody wanted, that of next-door-neighbour Harry Morton on The Burns and Allen Show. You think two Darrens on Bewitched was confusing? What about four Harrys? And that’s not including radio.

We’ll get to Harry in just a moment. First, let’s hear from TV’s grouchiest actor. Frawley stayed with Lucy until the show’s end, though he signed a deal while still under contract to move on to My Three Sons. Arnaz apparently wasn’t pleased.

This story appeared in papers around June 21, 1953.
“Landlord’s’ Love For Lucy is Fading

HOLLYWOOD—BILL FRAWLEY wants to quit playing the role of Fred Mertz in the popular "I Love Lucy" show.
Some of his friends claim Bill doesn't mean it, that he is just being typically rambunctious, and point to the fact he just signed for two more years as the Ricardos’ landlord.
But the caustic pugnacious veteran of stage, screen and TV apparently is quite serious, and has built up a pretty strong case for himself.
"Sure, I signed up for another two years, but that doesn't make me happy. I had no choice. I couldn't break the contract, and the options are all their way," Bill glumly states.
His reason for wanting to leave the Nation's top-rated video show is a very fundamental one—money. Bill's salary was hiked with the new contract, but in his own words, "It's only another dollar, comparatively speaking."
This financial wound has been widened further by some much more attractive offers for Bill's services on other TV shows. George Burns made a pass at Frawley recently, asking him to do the Harry Morton role which Fred Clark is vacating next fall.
Freeman Keyes, Red Skelton's mentor, wants Bill for the lead in a new video series he is planning, "Uncle Bill's Doghouse." Keyes has offered Bill twice the money he's getting as Fred Mertz.
There is an outside chance Bill may be able to do both shows, if Keyes and Desi Arnaz can come to an agreement which would allow Desi to produce the "Doghouse" series under the Desilu Production banner. Keyes has offered $20,000 per week for the filming, but Desi is holding out for $23,000.
If this deal goes through, Bill would have to start work right away on the new series and complete most of it before "I Love Lucy" starts up again next fall. "That would be okeh with me. If I worked hard all summer, maybe I'd be sick by fall. That would be one way to duck Fred Mertz," says Bill, devilishly.
In the meantime he is resting up before making the annual Frawley pilgrimage to New York where his baseball cronies (Bill is a rabid Yankees fan) always are waiting to welcome him.
"I've got to have stamina for that trip," he jokingly explains.
"They work me over in shifts back there. A daytime crew meets me at the station and we make the rounds. The night crew takes over after dinner. About 5 A. M. they dump me off at the hotel to be sick by myself.
"After a doctor has jabbed me with a needle a foot long and slipped me some pills, a committee of friends pick me up, take me to the train and say 'Don't come back again, you little heel, until you learn how to take it.'"
The man who has gained more fame as Fred Mertz than he ever did during his long career as Actor Bill Frawley does not deny that there is a lot of satisfaction derived from being associated with the top show on TV.
He knows, too, that these fancy offers being tossed at him now are the result of this association. He recently made an industrial film for Gulf Oil which netted him more in one week of shooting than he makes in four weeks with Desilu.
But when an actor or anyone else finds himself in a spot where his services suddenly double in value, it's only natural to want to cash in while he's hot. If Lucy and Ricky Ricardo are interested in their landlord's happy frame of mind, they'd better kick in to Fred Mertz with a little more rent money.
Columnist Humphrey continued on the Harry Morton beat for the rest of the summer. Burns found a replacement for Fred Clark, someone who had joined the NBC announcing staff from KGW Portland in 1936, and had an interesting idea on how to introduce this latest Harry to viewers.
Burns, Allen Lose Veteran Cast Member

HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 4.—Producers of those TV situation comedies usually are thrown into great consternation when a regular member of the cast drops out for; one reason or another.
They worry about whether the viewers will accept another actor playing a role which has become so thoroughly identified with a certain face.
George Burns and his producer currently find themselves in this predicament because Fred Clark is not going to play Harry Morton on the Burns and Allen show this fall. The part will be played by Larry Keating, veteran actor-announcer.
George refuses to make a federal case out of losing Clark.
“Why try to kid anybody?” he asked. “Blanche (Bea Benedaret) has to have a new husband, so on the first show we’ll simply introduce him as the new member of the cast.”
He is even considering making by bringing three or four candidates to Blanche's house and supposedly letting her pick the one she wants for her husband. "It might be a cute, idea, and it takes care of the plot for one show," George said.
George is the guy who once described a TV situation comedy as something which has a little more plot than a movie, but not quite as much as a wrestling match.
Bill Frawley, who is Fred Mertz on the "I Love Lucy" show, may branch out into his own series this fall in addition to his Mertz role.
If the deal is signed, Desi Arnaz’ production company (Desilu) will film it. The tentative title is "Uncle Bill's Doghouse."
So what did Bea Benaderet think about all this? Humphrey got the answer to that.

Trying to figure out when Benaderet first played Blanche is a little tricky. Verna Felton plays her in the broadcast of January 2, 1947. Harry is mentioned but doesn’t appear. Benaderet plays her on the show of January 29, 1948, but the rest of the season, she’s heard in various other roles, including a friend named Clara Bagley. Blanche appears once again as Blanche in November and then only periodically through the following summer, and while she mentions Harry, he is never heard. It doesn’t appear anyone played Harry until Burns and Allen were sponsored by Ammident in the 1949-50 season. Hal March was Harry and, even then, he played other roles. Sources conflict about who filled the role at first and not all broadcasts are available to check.

The article below ignores one of the TV Harrys—long-time radio actor John Brown, who disappeared from television because of the blacklist.
Gracie Allen's Neighbor Lasts 16 Years in Role

HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 30.—Proof that men aren't as steady and reliable as women is more than evident in the plight of Bea Benadaret, who plays Blanche Morton friend, confidante and next-door of neighbor of Gracie Allen.
Surprising as it may be to this TV generation, Bea has done this role with Burns and Allen for 16 years. In that time she also has gone through give “husbands.”
“It’s enough to make a gal just a little self-conscious, you know,” says Bea mischievously.
Last week Bea was introduced to the sixth Harry Morton, when the cameras started rolling on the new Burns and Allen series, the first episode of which will be seen Oct. 5.
Each time she is called upon to begin life anew with another Harry Morton, Bea is forced to revamp her own role as the wife, Blanche. The current Harry (Fred Clark) is a slightly oafish real estate salesman with an appetite that would have shamed the late Gargantua.
Larry Keating, who succeeds Clark this fall on your TV screens, will be a certified public accountant with a normal appetite and a higher IQ.
"This calls for Blanche employing a little more restraint. My characterization won’t be as broad as it was with Clark, because if it were, I would come out as a heavy against an actor like Keating,” explains Bea.
Many Burns and Allen fans may have wondered why it wouldn't be easier and more believable for viewers if both characters were replaced when it was necessary to find a new Harry.
The answer to this lies with Bea's infallible timing and ability to play a semi-flip but true blue woman whose wordly wisdom is confined to a penetrating knowledge of everyday life.
"Comedians have ears like Geiger counters," Bea says. "A line has to be delivered just right. They can detect a wrong emphasis or inflection quicker than Toscanini can spot a flat note in a 30-piece fiddle section.
Bea herself is too modest to say so, but she has developed her own talent in this line to a point where the meticulous George Burns has no fault to find with Mrs. Harry Morton.
It was in 1932 that Bea first met up with George and Gracie. She did a bit part in a radio broadcast they were doing in San Francisco. In 1937 George wanted a couple to play his and Gracie's neighbors on the show, and Bea was chosen as the wife.
She's been Blanche Morton ever since. Two different husbands were used while the show was on radio, and the second one, Hal March, started with Bea on TV. He was considered two young in appearance to be married to Bea. Even the viewers complained of the disparity in their ages.
"Hal is a marvelous actor. But the role called for someone who looked solid and faithful. Hal looked like a chaser," Bea says.
Fred Clark is leaving Harry Morton behind so that he can be in New York with his wife, Benay Venuta, and also because he felt he was losing his own identity with the public.
Recently when Fred and Benay got into a taxi in Gotham, the cabbie looked knowingly at Fred and cracked, "Where's your wife, Harry?”
As for Bea, she's ready to put in another 16 years as the Burns' neighbor with any ol’ husband.
Keating continued playing Harry Morton until a Burns-minus-Gracie spin-off sitcom went off in 1959. But the Keating-Burns connection continued. Keating was hired as next-door neighbour Roger Addison the Burns-produced Mr. Ed in 1961 and continued on the show until his death in 1963. Producer Burns decided not to try to get a second Roger Addison. Instead, Leon Ames was brought in to play a different character. The next few years weren’t good for some of the other Mortons. Benaderet and Clark both died in 1968, while cancer claimed March less than three weeks into 1970. Loveable old coot Bill Frawley preceded them in 1966.


  1. Frawley must not have hated being Fred Mertz--or even working with Vivian Vance, whom he claimed to dislike--too much because he was willing to star in a Fred and Ethel spinoff when I Love Lucy concluded its run. Probably he liked the money Desi was offering him. Vance, on the other hand, wanted no part of it, no matter how good the pay.

  2. Keating's pompous character would make for a better foil than Clark's Harry, while Bea's Blanche had the ability to be around Gracie and accept her view of the world for what it was, and even enjoy it on occasion, while saving up her anger (on occasion) for George (Had Frawley taken the role, he definitely would have been written more in the Fred Clark almost-ready-to-blow-his-stack role than Keating's interpretation of Harry).

  3. This made my smile. I Love Lucy was huge in reruns when I was a kid, and I was the only guy whose favorite character was Fred. (I always thought he walked away with Miracle on 34th Street effortlessly.) The musical numbers with Fred and Ethel on Lucy were always a highlight, and I wish there were more of them.

    Now it's mea culpa time. I've been reading this blog for years and always thought of posting a comment, but never have. I just wanted you to know how much I love this mix of cartoons, OTR and vintage television. Born in 62, I was raised during the height of the great nostalgia craze, and all of this stuff was still new and current -- and somehow more compelling -- to you young 'nostalgia-crazed' kid.

    So, though this is the pop culture of my dad (and grand dad), it is mine, as well.


  4. Would have been interesting to see how Bea would have adapted her character to play off Bill Frawley. Like Bob, Fred Mertz was also my favorite character in " I Love Lucy ". Also enjoyed his lovable, but loving grouch " Bub ", in the first four seasons of " My 3 Sons ". I remember very well his final role, the short " walk on " in an episode of " The Lucy Show ".