On July 26, 1909 Vivian Vance was born. Besides having an extensive background in theater, including stints on Broadway, Vance is best known for playing the role of Ethel Mertz in the sitcom “I Love Lucy,” “The Lucy Desi Comedy Hour,” as well as appearing on the “The Lucy Show.”
When casting for “I Love Lucy” began, it was director Marc Daniels, and then later, Desi Arnaz, who suggested Vance for the role of landlord Ethel Mertz. Lucille Ball herself was less than thrilled at first, seeing how she had envisioned Ethel to be older and less attractive than Lucy Ricardo, and Vance herself was close to Ball’s age, as well as attractive. To make Ethel Mertz look more “plain,” she would often appear on screen wearing outfits that were considerably less stylish that Lucy’s, even though they were both housewives and Ethel arguably had more money (as she was the landlord of the whole building that the Mertzes and Ricardos lived in). Even though on screen Vance and Ball played best friends, off screen their friendship wasn’t as solid. It took Lucille Ball awhile to warm up to Vance, seeing how she had never heard of her before “I Love Lucy,” as Ball was mostly involved with film and television, and Vance was mostly a stage/theater actress. In time, however, their friendship blossomed, and the two became extremely close. Her theater/stage background was touched upon in “I Love Lucy,” mostly when both Fred and Ethel Mertz would at times reference their various stage acts, as well as demonstrate their singing alongside Ricky.
The one relationship that was never solid, was that of Vivian Vance and William Frawley (Fred Mertz). While Vance and Frawley had great chemistry on screen as Fred and Ethel Mertz, off screen they essentially despised each other. Most of the hatred came from Vance who disliked the idea of playing a wife to a man who was over 20 years her senior. It was rumored that Frawley overheard this complaint, to which he commented that even though she’s one of the most attractive people he’s seen come out of Kansas, that he at times wished she would go back there. After “I Love Lucy” went off the air, Frawley and Vance were the given the opportunity to have their own spinoff focusing on Fred and Ethel. Even though Frawley and Vance didn’t get along, Frawley saw it as a great business opportunity. Vance, on the other hand, shot down the idea, refusing to want to work with Frawley ever again.
After “I Love Lucy” ended, Vance continued to play the role of Ethel Mertz on “The Lucy Desi Comedy Hour,” as well as appear on “The Lucy Show” alongside Lucille Ball as Vivian Bagley, Lucy’s friend. Vivian Bagley was the first divorcee to appear on television in a weekly sitcom.
In the 1970s, aside for being the spokeswoman for Maxwell House Coffee, Vance was plague with various health issues. In 1973, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and in 1977, shortly after her last television appearance, she suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. Her last television appearance, fittingly so, was alongside Lucille Ball. She appeared alongside Lucille Ball in the CBS special, “Lucy Calls The President,” which aired on November 21, 1977. Sadly, on August 17, 1979 Vance succumbed to bone cancer at the age of 70. At the time of her death, Desi Arnaz was quoted in saying, “It’s bad enough to lose one of the great artists we had the honor and the pleasure to work with, but it’s even harder to reconcile the loss of one of your best friends;” while Lucile Ball stated in a 1986 interview regarding watching “I Love Lucy” reruns, “I find that now I usually spend my time looking at Viv. Viv was sensational… I enjoy every move that Viv made. She was something.”
Vivian Vance in a 1976 commercial for Maxwell Coffee House:
A clip of the famous “I Love Lucy” scene at the chocolate factory:
For her achievements in television, Vance, posthumously, was awarded a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991, inducted alongside William Frawley in the Television Academy Hall of Fame in March 2012, and memorialized in the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in Jamestown, New York.
Random Pop Culture Fact: Vance became the first actress to win the Emmy Award for “Outstanding Supporting Actress.” She accepted her award at the 1954 Emmy ceremony.
Random Pop Culture Fact: Like Ethel Mertz, Vivian Vance herself had lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was the founding member of the Albuquerque Little Theatre. After her death, her family donated her Emmy to the Albuquerque Little Theatre.