Sunday, July 26, 2009


Today would have been the 100th birthday of one of the greatest second bananas of all time. She was of course the legendary and the absolutely amazing Vivian Vance. I absolutely dare anyone not to laugh any time she is not with Lucille Ball in one of those endless re-runs of "I Love Lucy" You could watch each one of those amazing episodes over and over and over gain and you will you find some little thing you never noticed before and laugh all over again. And it just wasn't in "I Love Lucy". Later when Viv played Vivian Bradley in "The Lucy Show" she demonstrated just how amazingly funny she could be. My favorite is the episode when she and Lucy are trying to put an antenna on the roof of the home they share. They actually succeed in putting a big gaping hole in the roof during this. Towards the end of the episode, Vivian slips again and almost falls off the roof to what may be injury or death, but on the way down she manages to grab the edge of the hole in the roof and stays there. The funny thing is this: here she is hanging between life and death, struggling to get herself back up and she looks down into the hole which is right above her bedroom in the house. She looks down and says "Ew, I should have made my bed this morning!" And you just scream. You forget all about the danger, and the almost calamity of the situation and you hear that line (which is honesty in it's purist form) and you laugh long and hard. Of course, the written line is funny but ONLY if delivered by an absolute genius that Viv was. When Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were casting their new television sitcom I Love Lucy in 1951, director Marc Daniels, who had previously worked with Vance in a theater production, suggested her for the role of landlady Ethel Mertz. She was not the first choice, however. Lucille Ball wanted actress Bea Benaderet, a close friend. Because of a prior acting commitment, Benaderet had to decline playing the role.Arnaz then began searching for another actress. Daniels took Arnaz, along with producer Jess Oppenheimer, to see Vance in the John Van Druten play The Voice of the Turtle. While watching her perform, Arnaz was convinced he had found the right woman to play Ethel Mertz. Lucy was less sure, since she had envisioned Ethel as much older and less attractive. In addition, Ball, firmly entrenched in film and radio, had never heard of Vance, primarily a theater actress. Nonetheless, the 42-year-old Vance was given the role on the new television program, which debuted October 15, 1951, on CBS Viv's Ethel Mertz character was the less-than-prosperous landlady of a New York City brownstone, owned by her and husband Fred Mertz. The role of Fred was played by William Frawley, who was 22 years her senior. While the actors shared great comedic and musical chemistry on-screen, they did not get along in real life. According to some reports, things first went sour when Frawley overheard Vance complaining about his age, stating that he should be playing her father rather than her husband. She used to skim through the script to see how many scenes she had with that "stubborn-headed little Irishman."Others recall that Frawley loathed Vance practically on sight. Vance, in turn, was put off by Frawley's cantankerous ways, in addition to his age.[4 The hatred that Frawley and Vance had for each other was so strong that when he died in 1966, Vance while at a restaurant is reported to have shouted "Champagne for everyone!" when she received the news. Eventually, Lucy overcame her resistance to Vance, and the two women formed a close friendship.
Honored for her work in 1953, Vance became the first actress to win an Emmy Award for "Outstanding Supporting Actress". Vance accepted her award at the Emmy ceremony in February 1954. She was nominated an additional three times (for 1954, 1956 and 1957) before the end of the series.In 1957, after the highly successful half-hour I Love Lucy episodes had ended, Vance continued playing Ethel Mertz on a series of hour-long specials titled The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show (later retitled The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour). In 1959, she divorced her third husband Philip Ober, who allegedly physically abused her.[When the hour-long Lucy-Desi specials ended production in 1960, Vance and Frawley were given the opportunity to star in their own "Fred and Ethel" spin-off show. Although Frawley was interested, Vance declined. The program was retooled and broadcast as Guestward, Ho!, with Joanne Dru taking the female lead. In 1960, Viv appeared in a pilotwithout Frawley for that same proposed series Guestward, Ho! The pilot didn't sell. In 1962, when Lucy was planning to return to television in a new series, she asked Vance to rejoin her. Vance reluctantly agreed, with the stipulation that she be allowed to appear in more glamorous clothes, as well as having her character be named "Vivian" (as she was tired of the public addressing her as "Ethel"). She appeared on The Lucy Show from 1962 until 1965, as Vivian Bagley, a divorced mother of one son, sharing a house with Ball's character. The character of Vivian Bagley was the first divorcee ever on a weekly American television series.
The strain of commuting from her home in Connecticut to Hollywood was too hard on her, however. By 1964, she appeared in only half of the episodes. The following year, she was offered a new contract with Desilu Studios, giving her the opportunity to direct. This never came to fruition.After her departure from The Lucy Show, Vance appeared occasionally alongside Lucille Ball on reunion shows and made several guest appearances on Ball's third sitcom, Here's Lucy (1968-1974).
In 1973, our dear Viv was diagnosed with breast cancer. The following year, she and her husband moved to Belveder, California, so she could be near her sister. It was during this period that Vance played the part of "Maxine", who wheeled around a catering truck, dispensing Maxwell House coffee to office workers in a series of television commercials. In 1977, Vance suffered a stroke which left her partially paralyzed. Her final television appearance with Lucille Ball was on the CBS special Lucy Calls the President, which aired November 21, 1977.Vivian Vance, who never had children, died on August 17, 1979, at the age of 70, of bone cancer. After her death, Desi Arnaz remarked, "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."
She was the godmother of Lovin' Spoonful guitarist John Sebastian, and had been very close friends with his mother Jane. Viv's body was cremated, and the ashes scattered at sea.
During a 1986 interview, Lucille Ball talked about watching I Love Lucy reruns and her reaction to Vance's performance: "I find that now I usually spend my time looking at Viv. Viv was sensational. And back then, there were things I had to do—I was in the projection room for some reason, and I just couldn't concentrate on it. But now I can. And I enjoy every move that Viv made. She was something."


Tony Westbrook said...

I Love Ethel! And Vivian!!

Anonymous said...

I join. And I have faced it.