Being Fred Mertz: The Life of William Frawley
Yesterday would have been William Frawley’s 125th birthday. The man who achieved television immortality as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy was born in Burlington, Iowa, on February 26, 1887.
The Early Years
As a young boy, William Clement Frawley sang in the choir at St. Paul’s Catholic Church and played at the Burlington Opera House. Hist first job was as a stenographer for the Union Pacific Railroad; he later found employment as a court reporter.
Bitten by the show biz bug, he soon began performing a vaudeville act with his brother Paul.
In 1914, he married Edna Louise Broedt (his only marriage) and the two performed in vaudeville together in a light comedy act as “Frawley and Louise,” touring the Orpheum and the Keith circuits until their divorce in 1927.
Possessing a deep, bass singing voice, Frawley also had a successful singing career, appearing on Broadway and reportedly introducing the songs “My Mammy” and “My Melancholy Baby” to stage audiences.
In 1916, Frawley signed a contract with Paramount Studios to appear in silent films. For the next 35 years, Frawley was a beloved character actor and a familiar face in more than 100 films. His movie credits are eclectic as well as prolific and include such popular films as 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). He also made two appearances with Abbott and Costello—A Night in the Tropics (1940) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)—and one with Bob Hope, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951).
Although a highly successful “working actor” in films, Frawley’s movie career had begun to slow down by 1951. This seems to have two reasons, one of which was his legendary crabby, gruff, and misanthropic personality. A notorious curmudgeon, by 1951 Frawley discovered that fewer and fewer actors, directors, and producers were willing to put up with him. (As early as 1928, Frawley had been fired from the Broadway show That’s My Baby for punching actor Clifton Webb in the nose.)
The other cause for the slowing of his career was his equally notorious love for the bottle. So, in mid-1951, when actress Lucille Ball contacted Frawley about the possibility of taking on the role of gruff landlord Fred Mertz in her new comedy television series, I Love Lucy, she and her husband/co-star Desi Arnaz were more than a bit leery. Unable to get Gale Gordon, their first choice for the role, Arnaz contacted Frawley and laid down the law. He simply told Frawley that he’d get three chances. The first screw-up would be tolerated, the second would get him a severe reprimand, and the third would get him fired.
Frawley, by then 64 years old, long-divorced, and unemployed, living alone in his Hollywood apartment, agreed to Arnaz’s terms and was to conduct himself professionally over the course of the next nine years, until the show and its follow-up series, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, ended their legendary runs in 1960.
I Love Lucy
On the first day of I Love Lucy rehearsals, Frawley overheard his scripted “wife,” co-star Vivian Vance (22 years his junior), say to Lucy and Desi, “I can’t play his wife. No one will believe I’m married to that old coot.” (Note: The word “coot” may have been replaced by a much cruder epithet by Vance.) Whatever she actually did say, Frawley was never to forgive her and, for the next nine years, although they played one of the funniest husband and wife teams in TV history, by all accounts the two hated each other.
Interestingly (and fortunately), this intense hatred seemed to actually help their performances and their back-and-forth barbs and insults played even funnier because of it. (After Lucy ended its original run, a spin-off called Fred and Ethyl was discussed. Frawley was willing to put aside his feelings toward Vance and saw the financial possibilities of the series, but Vance adamantly refused to ever work with Frawley again.)
A lifelong baseball fan, Frawley had insisted on a unique clause in his I Love Lucy contract: If his beloved New York Yankees made it to the World Series, he would be given time off in October for the World Series. This clause came into play seven times during Frawley’s I Love Lucy run and caused him to be written out of two full episodes.
Frawley earned five consecutive Emmy nominations (1953-1957) for his always brilliant performances. Although he never won, Frawley’s Fred Mertz remains one of the most beloved characters in the history of television.
Despite his animosity toward Vance, Frawley did develop one of the few genuine friendships of his life during I Love Lucy, becoming close with Desi Arnaz. Arnaz, the show’s producer, made sure his friend was well-paid; by the end, Frawley was pulling $7,500 a week, a very generous rate for the time, plus a good residual deal (which few actors had in the early days of television).
My Three Sons
After the 1960 cancellation of Lucy, Frawley immediately found steady work as “Bub” O’Casey, another lovable curmudgeon, on the series My Three Sons. Much like his I Love Lucy stint, Frawley’s My Three Sons work was done professionally and without incident. (Still harboring bad feelings for Vivian Vance, though, he did allegedly enjoy gathering cans of film at the Desilu studios and tossing them onto the adjacent soundstage, where Vance was then working on The Lucy Show; the loud clanging would inevitably upset Vance, much to Frawley’s delight.)
By the mid-1960s, though, alcohol and old age finally took their toll, and Frawley began forgetting his lines. One muffed take would follow another, and he’d try to cover his embarrassment by bellowing insults like, “Who writes this crap, anyway?” If the company didn’t get his scenes filmed in the mornings, Frawley would sometimes nod off in the middle of afternoon filmings. Eventually, a prop man had to lie on the floor, out of the camera’s view, and tap Frawley’s shoe to keep him from dozing off in the close-ups. By the show’s fifth season, Frawley was in such ill health that he couldn’t pass the studio’s annual health insurance exam and was let go.
William Frawley’s last ever TV appearance was with his former co-star Lucille Ball on a 1965 episode of The Lucy Show titled “The Traveller.” In the brief cameo, as Frawley walks by, Lucy turns her head, sees him, and remarks, “He reminds me of someone I used to know.”
On March 3, 1966, 79-year-old William Frawley died of a heart attack while walking home from a movie. According to Hollywood lore, when Vance heard the news of his death, she shouted, “Champagne for everyone!”
In Frawley’s honor, Desi Arnaz immediately took out a full-page ad in all the trade papers with the words “Buenos noches, amigo.” Arnaz was to serve as one of the pallbearers at Frawley’s funeral.
Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He’s also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he’s done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter’s Laboratory and Family Guy.
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