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William Frawley, 'I Love Lucy's Fred Mertz: A Bit Of A Jerk

Entertainment | February 22, 2019

William Frawley as Fred Mertz on the television comedy 'I Love Lucy', 1952. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

On I Love Lucy, Fred Mertz, played by William Frawley, was one of the show's four main characters; the Mertzes (Fred and Ethel) were the best friends of the titular character Lucy Ricardo and her husband Ricky. The program was a showcase for the comedic genius of Lucille Ball (Lucy), who was always annoying Ricky (played by Desi Arnaz) with her antics and conspiring with Ethel (played by Vivian Vance). Fred Mertz was the Ricardos' landlord, and like Ethel he was a former vaudevillian, giving him a dual personality on the show as a bit of a grump but also encouraging of Lucy's showbiz ambitions. Ultimately, Ethel and Fred Mertz were I Love Lucy's catalysts, endearing characters who helped advance the drama of each episode. Nobody didn't like Fred and Ethel Mertz.

On the other hand, William Frawley was a jerk -- that's the actor's legacy, at least. Frawley was a big drinker whose obvious talent as a performer could never quite compensate for his offscreen (or offstage) unpleasantness. His career successes tended to be followed by falling-outs with his colleagues, and by the time he was up for his career-defining role he was considered an undesirable by many in the industry. Harmless curmudgeon Fred Mertz was a risk.

First working as a stenographer for the Union Pacific Railroad and then as a court reporter, William Clement Frawley was eventually bitten by the showbiz bug. As a boy, he sang at the Catholic church, so it wasn’t shocking when he decided to go into the entertainment arena. Frawley and his brother, Paul, found their niche when they launched a successful vaudeville bit.

William Frawley Punched Clifton Webb In The Nose

Connie Gilchrist and William Frawley in Chicken Every Sunday. Source: (chickeneverysunday1948.blogspot.com)

William Frawley married Edna Louise Broedt in 1914 and the couple performed a comedy act in vaudeville as “Frawley And Louise” until they divorced in 1927. Frawley made his way on Broadway, but an early incident speaks to his professional demeanor. In 1928, he was fired from the musical She's My Baby following an altercation with Clifton Webb (who would go on to be nominated for three Academy Awards.

"I was thrown out of that one for punching Clifton Webb in the nose," Frawley later recalled. "He spoke nasty to me a couple of times, and I told him that if he did that again, I'd sock him in the nose. He did and I did, and I got kicked out"

In Hollywood, Frawley's film career was eclectic in nature and he took roles in any film that paid. Frawley appeared in films including Gentleman Jim (1942) with Errol Flynn, Going My Way (1944) with Bing Crosby, the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Frawley also appeared in films with the famed Abbott and Costello. After some successful acting gigs, his appeal in the acting world took a dive. Apparently, Frawley had a problem with the bottle.

Alcohol played a major role in William Frawley’s acting and personality woes. By 1951, William Frawley’s acting career had all but stalled. It was no surprise to anyone in the industry or anyone who knew him. He was a notorious hothead who took matters into his own hands and acted out in an effort to right perceived wrongs. Before long, there were few fellow actors, producers or directors who were interested in humoring his well-known crabby, gruff and distasteful behavior. Frawley was unapologetic and had made a bad reputation for himself.

Frawley Approached Lucille Ball And Desi Arnaz About Their New Project

Young William Frawley. Source: (pinterest.com)

At the age of 64, Frawley was feeling the pinch of not being able to find work. It was then that he had heard that Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were in search of someone to fill the role of a character on their new television show, I Love Lucy. Frawley approached the pair about the role and the talks began. Arnaz and Ball were leery about hiring Frawley because of his reputation but decided to take a chance on him. Arnaz made it abundantly clear that bad behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. Despite not having the upper hand, Frawley had some terms of his own.

Frawley Negotiated A New York Yankees Clause

Cast of I Love Lucy. Source: (abcnew.go.com)

William Frawley was cast as Fred Mertz, after Arnaz’s first choice for the role (Gale Gordon) wasn’t available. Just like Arnaz had laid down the law, Frawley demanded that his contract provide for time off the set any time the Yankees made it to the World Series. Arnaz fired back with the provision that bad behavior on Frawley’s part wouldn’t be tolerated. They had struck a deal. Interestingly, Frawley benefited from the Yankees contract clause a total of seven times. Due to Frawley’s beloved Yankees being in the World Series, he was written out of two full episodes.


Fred Mertz Was The Role That Made (Or Saved) Frawley's Career

William Frawley and Desi Arnaz. Source: (stylemeceo.wordpress.com)

It has been said that William Frawley achieved television immortality portraying the endearing curmudgeon Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. He portrayed a cantankerous old coot but was all too lovable at the same time. Truth be told, the less pleasant aspects of William Frawley’s on-screen persona as Fred Mertz were the ones that most resembled his real personality. Frawley was as stuffy and gruff in real life as he could be on screen.


Vivian Vance Couldn't Stand William Frawley

William Frawley and Vivian Vance. Source: (purpleclover.com)

Landing the role of Fred Mertz, the unpleasant, tightwad landlord, was just what Frawley’s career needed but not so for his ego.

Vivian Vance, who played opposite William Frawley as Ethel Mertz, was not a fan of the actor. She was actually much younger than he, 22 years in fact, and had heard about his reputation. She wasn’t impressed and didn’t mince words about it. She called him an old coot which is a name that stuck on the hit series. Because Frawley heard the comment with his own ears and knew of her dislike for him, they never got along. This hateful dynamic actually made the script stronger because they were so believable. The pair played one of the most believable unhappy husband and wife teams in television history. William Frawley never won an Emmy award but nevertheless earned himself five nominations for his stellar performances as Fred Mertz. He also earned himself the distinction of one of the most beloved characters in television history despite his demeanor on screen and off.

After the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz shows ended, there was some talk about a spinoff to be called "Fred And Ethel."  Frawley wanted to continue working and considered the possibility, but Vance wouldn’t have it. She refused to ever work with him again.


Frawley Went On To Appear In 'My Three Sons'

William Frawley on My Three Sons. Source: (americanprofile.com)

After his professional association with Arnaz and Ball, Frawley went on to be cast in another very popular sitcom; My Three Sons.

Just like I Love Lucy, My Three Sons was a hit. William Frawley had been cast as Bub O’Casey on My Three Sons. Just like Fred Mertz, Bub O’Casey was a grump, although a more loveable one. Unlike many other of his gigs, Frawley managed to pull this acting stint off without a hitch. That didn’t mean that he had gotten over the bad blood with Vivian Vance, though. He continued to harass her whenever possible since they worked at the same studio, albeit on different shows.

By the mid '60s, William Frawley had begun slipping. Although Frawley had maintained his acting success, he never defeated his alcoholism, and the booze and old age eventually took their toll on him. Suffering embarrassment at forgetting his lines, Frawley would lash out and blame-shift. At times, the all-but-washed-up actor would fall asleep onset requiring a prop man to lay on the floor, out of view, tapping Frawley’s foot to keep him awake during filming. By season five of My Three Sons, Frawley was in such poor health that he couldn’t pass the studio’s annual health insurance exam. It was then that he was let go.

William Frawley Had At Least One Friend

William Frawley. Source: (mancrushes.com)

William Frawley died at the age of 79 of a heart attack. Despite his personal shortcomings, he and Desi Arnaz ended up lifelong friends. When Vivian Vance learned of Frawley’s passing, she was reported to have shouted, “Champagne for everyone!” Arnaz, on the other hand, took out an ad in a newspaper with the tribute, “Buenos noches, amigo.”

Tags: Celebrities In The 1950s | I Love Lucy | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Television | William Frawley

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.