William Frawley, the Iowa-born vaudevillian whose quick-witted comebacks and grumpy but lovable portrayal of Fred Mertz on the legendary sitcom “I Love Lucy” endeared him to millions of Americans, died on this day in history, March 3, 1966.
He was 79.
Nicknamed “Bill,” the actor was best known for his supporting role as Fred Mertz, the Ricardos’ sarcastic landlord of 623 E. 68th Street in Manhattan.
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Throughout his career, Frawley was cast in over 100 films, including “Desire,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Monsieur Verdoux” starring Charlie Chaplin.
He often portrayed coaches or trainers — fitting, arguably, given his affinity for sports and his friendships with athletes.
After his success as Fred Mertz as he worked alongside Lucille Ball (Lucy Ricardo), Desi Arnaz (Ricky Ricardo) and Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz) in “I Love Lucy,” Frawley starred as Bub in the television comedy series, “My Three Sons.”
Frawley came from “vaudeville roots,” as noted in the unauthorized biography of Vance and Frawley titled, “Meet the Mertzes,” written by Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg.
He performed in vaudeville with his brother Paul Frawley before touring with others, including with his wife Edna Louise Broedt, a performer whom he divorced in 1927 after 13 years of marriage.
He also had a solid run on Broadway amid many B-roles in films.
As Edelman and Kupferberg wrote in their book, “William Frawley might easily have ended up mired in obscurity, serving up scotch on the rocks and boilermakers from behind a bar and yammering on and on about his days on the vaudeville and Broadway boards.”
They added, “This easily might have been his fate in the early 1950s and 1960s – if not for ‘I Love Lucy.’”
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The characters of Fred and Ethel Mertz reportedly didn’t exist in the CBS sitcom’s early development.
Once those characters did, several actors including Gale Gordon and James Gleason were considered for the role of Fred Mertz.
When Frawley heard about the part, he called Ball and Arnaz to express his interest in the TV gig.
“After I hung up I kept seeing his puss and remembering how good he was at playing the kind of gruff character he usually played,” Arnaz wrote in his 1976 autobiography, according to Edelman and Kupferberg.
“The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced he was Fred Mertz.”
Ball also wanted 64-year-old Frawley for the part.
It was CBS officials and sponsor Philip Morris tobacco who were on the fence.
Frawley had a reputation: His fondness for booze was reportedly known across show business.
“Well, those b——-, those sons of b——,” Frawley reportedly said at the time, in reaction to the network’s hesitation to hire him.
“They’re always saying that about me. How the hell do they know?” he also said, in part.
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Arnaz apparently established ground rules for Frawley’s employment.
If he missed more than three days of work on “I Love Lucy,” he’d be canned, as Edelman and Kupferberg noted in their book.
Frawley delivered. He didn’t miss work — and the show was an overwhelming success.
He starred alongside the gang all the way into the 1960 airing of the final episode of the series spinoff, “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.”
Despite the early skeptics, Frawley was known as a good actor. “I Love Lucy” director William Asher said he was “very, very good” indeed.
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“He really was,” Asher said in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation before his death in 2012. “But he used to drive Vivian [Vance] crazy.”
Frawley had a few years on Vance, who played his TV wife. He was 64 when the first “I Love Lucy” episode aired on Oct. 15, 1951. Vance was about 42.
Asher’s opinion was that Frawley and Vance’s relationship appeared to be “hateful,” though their professionalism proved otherwise.
“She would [say], ‘Go on, you dirty old drunk’ and he’d call her ‘an old b—-.’ They’d be at each other all the time,” he said.
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“It contributed actually to their relationship and of course, Lucy and Desi, who began having their differences, were highly professional and none of that showed.”
Asher added, “Everybody got along, except for Bill Frawley and Vivian, but the cast got along just fine.”
As for Arnaz and Ball, Frawley was known to have a strong friendship with the couple.
When Frawley died in 1966, Arnaz took out a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter, bidding his pal farewell with a photo and the message, “Buenas Noches, Amigo!”
Frawley’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame sits on Hollywood Boulevard between Vine Street and Ivar Avenue, approximately eight tenths of a mile away from Vance’s.
“One could not imagine his and Vance’s stars ever being placed side by side,” Edelman and Kupferberg wrote.
Frawley’s role as Fred Mertz scored him five Emmy nominations as well as a posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame in 2012.
In 2022, Academy Award Winner J.K. Simmons earned a nomination for his portrayal of Frawley in the 2021 Amazon biographical drama film, “Being the Ricardos.”