By Michael Spadoni
"I am not Ethel Mertz. My name is Vivian Vance."
That’s what the gifted actress once told a fan who came up
to her and asked about her fictional husband Fred. Such is the life of a
thespian famed for one role--but what a role! As the co-star of probably the
most popular sitcom in history, Vance became synonymous with Ethel Mertz. But
her association with I Love Lucy (and her real-life relationship with
Lucille Ball) also tormented Vance, who dreamed of being a glamorous lead
actress. That dream never materialized (she was essentially typecast as Lucy’s
sidekick for much of her career), but Vivian Vance has earned long overdue
respect for doing her job so well, despite incredible odds and personal
Vivian Roberta Jones was born July 26th, 1909, in Cherrydale, Kansas. One of six children, Vivian had long wanted to be an actress. But her mother thought the entertainment business was a hotbed of sin, and discouraged Vivian from acting. The more her mother disapproved, the more Vivian wanted to act. So, at age 16, she tried her luck in Omaha, Nebraska. The attempted failed.
Things changed when the family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Vivian performed in the city’s little theatre. The town loved her talent so much, they raised money for Vivian to go to New York. She found some success on Broadway in a series of plays and musicals. In 1945, Vivian suffered a nervous breakdown while performing the play Voice of the Turtle in Chicago. It took several years (and therapy) for Vivian to return to the stage and films.
In 1951, the part of Ethel Mertz was still not cast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s new sitcom, I Love Lucy. Director Marc Daniels suggested Arnaz check out Vance, who was performing Turtle in La Jolla, California (near San Diego). Daniels, Arnaz and executive producer Jess Oppenheimer went to see the play. Before it ended, Desi went backstage and offered Vivian the role. She initially turned it down, but later agreed to give television a try. Problem was, Desi hired Vivian without telling Lucy. (She was pregnant at the time and could not make the trip.) On the first day of rehearsals, Ball got her first glimpse at Vance, noting "You don’t look like a landlady." Vance asked, "What did you have in mind, Miss Ball?"
"I want a dumpy, fat woman in a chenille bathrobe and furry slippers with curlers in her hair," replied the soon-to-be Queen of Television Comedy. "You got her" said Vance.
Lucy thought that the Ethel Mertz character would pop in, say a few lines, then leave. But Desi, the producers and the writers saw Vance’s talent and excellent timing; they began adding Ethel in more and more scenes--which didn’t make Lucy so happy at first. (Vance was determined; knowing how important the show was to her career, she told a friend "I’m going to learn to love the bitch!".) It worked.
Eventually, Lucy overcame her resistance and began to respect Vance both personally and professionally. One story--some swear it’s true; others dispute it--claim Vance’s contract called for her to be 20 pounds overweight, so she could look like the 'dumpy, fat woman' Lucy wanted.
Vance also found herself at odds with her co-star and on-screen husband, William Frawley. It started when the 39-year-old Vance said to friends on the set that the 64-year-old Frawley should be playing her father! When the notoriously grouchy Frawley heard about that remark, he responded with some comments that cannot be repeated here. From that point on, the two began a feud that was successfully kept from the media. (Vance and Frawley had a financial incentive to keep their dislike for each other under wraps. Their 'Lucy' contracts stipulated that if something happened to one of them, the other would be written out of the show.)
During her 'Lucy' run, Vance continued therapy, in part for her problems on the set. She was also having marital troubles; two early marriages failed and her third to actor Phil Odets was falling apart (he was becoming jealous of her growing popularity; the couple divorced in 1959). Near the end of I Love Lucy’s run, Arnaz approached Vance with the idea of a spin-off show featuring Fred and Ethel Mertz.
Vance refused to do it; when Frawley found out, he was angry Vance blew a chance for the two to enjoy even more financial success! His dislike for Vance grew even more intense. After his 'Lucy' run, Frawley said of his old co-star: "I don’t know where she is now and she doesn’t know where I am, and that’s exactly the way I like it."
In 1960, Vance appeared in the pilot for a new sitcom, Guestward Ho! But it didn’t sell. (A recast version was sold to ABC; it aired for one season.) A year later, Vance was wed to literary agent John Dodds; despite rumours of his bisexuality, the marriage succeeded.
In 1962, Ball talked Vance into returning to television--despite Vance’s desire to stay home with her new husband in Connecticut. The Lucy Show solidified Ball’s reputation as a top-ten draw, and Vance again proved to be her equal as the two got into slapstick situations as newly single mothers who tried to make ends meet.
Despite 'The Lucy Show’s' success, Vance quickly grew tired of shuttling across the country. By 1964, she appeared on only half of the 'Lucy Show' episodes. The following year, she was offered a new contract with Desilu Studios, giving her the chance to direct and work behind the scenes. But she could not reach an agreement on salary (she reportedly asked for more money than the studio's president--Lucille Ball--was able to pay her). Although she was no longer a regular, Vance continued to make occasional guest appearances on The Lucy Show and its successor Here’s Lucy. (Vance and Ball remained friends, but their relationship was not the same--in part because Lucy felt a need to continue working and Vance did not).
In the late 1960’s and 70’s Vance also took occasional guest starring roles on various television series and movies and performed in theatre. She also became a spokeswoman for Instant Maxwell House Coffee. By this time, Vance began a battle with cancer that ended with her death on August 17th, 1979. She was the second of the four original 'Lucy' stars to pass on. (Bill Frawley died in 1966; Desi Arnaz passed away in 1986; Lucille Ball died in 1989.)
Today, it is hard to think of I Love Lucy without Vivian Vance. Without realising it, the role that she tried so hard to run away from in later years became the gig of a lifetime. In the world of sitcoms, Vance's Ethel Mertz was arguably "second banana to none".
Published on March 17th, 2020. Written by Michael Spadoni for Television Heaven.