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

By | February 18, 2019

test article image
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

test article image
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.