William Clement Frawley (February 26, 1887 – March 3, 1966) was an American stage entertainer and screen and television actor best known for playing landlord Fred Mertz in the American television sitcom I Love Lucy and Bub in the television comedy series My Three Sons.
Frawley began his career in vaudeville in 1914 with his wife, Edna Louise Broedt. Their comedy act, known as "Frawley and Louise", continued until their divorce in 1927. Frawley performed on Broadway multiple times and signed with Paramount Studios in 1916 to play in silent films. He appeared in more than 100 films over 35 years.
William Clement Frawley was born in 1887 in Burlington, Iowa, the second son of four children of Michael A. Frawley (1857–1907) and Mary E. (Brady) Frawley (1859–1921). He attended Catholic schools and sang in the choir at St. Paul's Catholic Church. As he got older, he played small roles in local theater productions at the Burlington Opera House as well as performed in amateur shows, though his mother, a highly religious woman, discouraged such activities.
Frawley's first job was as a stenographer in an office of the Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha, Nebraska. After two years working in that position, he relocated to Chicago, where he found a job as a court reporter. Not long after that move, and against his mother's wishes, he obtained a singing part in a musical comedy, The Flirting Princess. To appease his mother, Frawley relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, to work for another railroad company.
Feeling unfulfilled in that job as well, he continued to hope he would one day be a professional entertainer. He finally decided to act on that desire by forming a vaudeville act with his brother Paul (1889–1973), but six months later Frawley's mother told Paul to return to Iowa. Meanwhile, William wrote and sold a script titled Fun in a Vaudeville Agency, earning more than $500 for his efforts.
After his initial success as a scriptwriter, Frawley decided to relocate yet again, this time to the West, settling in Denver, where he was hired as a singer at a café and teamed with pianist Franz Rath. The duo soon moved to San Francisco with their act, "A Man, a Piano, and a Nut". During his vaudeville career, Frawley introduced and helped popularize the songs "My Mammy", "My Melancholy Baby", and "Carolina in the Morning". Many years later, in 1958, he recorded a selection of his old stage songs on an LP, Bill Frawley Sings the Old Ones.
Frawley began performing in Broadway theater. His first such show was the musical comedy, Merry, Merry, in 1925. He later made his first dramatic role in 1932, playing press agent Owen O'Malley in the original production of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Twentieth Century. He continued to be a dramatic actor at various locales until 1933.
In 1916, Frawley had appeared in two short subject silent films. He performed subsequently in three other short films, but he had not decided to develop a cinematic career until 1933, beginning with short comedy films and the feature musical Moonlight and Pretzels (Universal Studios, 1933). He relocated to Los Angeles, where he signed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures.
Finding much work as a character actor, he had roles in many different genres of films — comedies, dramas, musicals, Westerns, and romances. He appeared in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), portraying Judge Harper's political adviser, who warns his client in great detail of the dire political consequences if he rules that there is no Santa Claus. Some of his other memorable film roles were as the baseball manager in Joe E. Brown's Alibi Ike (1935), as the wedding host in Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and as a hard-nosed insurance investigator in My Home in San Antone, with Roy Acuff and Lloyd Corrigan.
I Love Lucy
By 1951, the 64-year-old Frawley had appeared in over 100 movies, but was starting to find film role offers becoming fewer. When he heard that Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were casting a new television situation comedy, he applied eagerly to play the role of the cantankerous, miserly landlord Fred Mertz. One evening he telephoned Lucille Ball, asking her what his chances were. Ball was surprised to hear from him — a man she barely knew. Both Ball and Arnaz agreed it would be great to have Frawley, a motion picture veteran, appear as Fred Mertz. Less enthusiastic were CBS executives, who warned of Frawley's frequent drinking and instability. Arnaz warned Frawley about the network's concerns, telling him that if he was late to work, arrived drunk, or was unable to perform because of something other than legitimate illness more than once, he would be written out of the show. A slightly different version of this conversation holds that Arnaz contacted the other actor and told Frawley he would get three chances. The first screw-up would be tolerated, the second would result in a severe reprimand, and the third would result in his being fired. Contrary to the network's concerns, Frawley never arrived at work drunk, and mastered his lines after only one reading. Arnaz eventually became one of Frawley's few close friends.
I Love Lucy debuted October 15, 1951, on CBS, and was a huge success. The series was broadcast for six years as half-hour episodes, later changing to hour-long specials from 1957-60 titled The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show (later retitled The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour).
Vivian Vance played Ethel Mertz, Frawley's on-screen wife. Although the two actors worked well together, they greatly disliked each other. Most attribute their mutual hatred to Vance's vocal resentment of having to play wife to a man 22 years her senior. Frawley reportedly overheard Vance complaining; he took offense and never forgave her. "She's one of the finest girls to come out of Kansas", he once observed, "But I often wish she'd go back there."
An avid New York Yankees baseball fan, Frawley had it written into his I Love Lucy contract that he did not have to work during the World Series if the Yankees were playing. The Yankees were in every World Series during that time except for 1954 and 1959. He did not appear in two episodes of the show as a result.
For his work on the show, Frawley was Emmy-nominated five consecutive times (1953-1957) for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a comedy series. In 1957, at the end of I Love Lucy, Ball and Arnaz gave Frawley and Vance the opportunity to have their own Fred and Ethel spin-off series for Desilu Studios. Despite his animosity towards her, Frawley saw a lucrative opportunity and accepted. Vance declined, having no desire to work with Frawley again and also feeling that Ethel and Fred would be unsuccessful without the Ricardos.
My Three Sons
Frawley next joined the cast of the ABC (later CBS) situation comedy My Three Sons, playing live-in grandfather and housekeeper Michael Francis (sometimes, as in S3E8 "What's Cooking?", William Francis) "Bub" O'Casey beginning in 1960. Featuring Fred MacMurray, the series was about a widower raising his three sons. Frawley was originally slated to be the series lead before MacMurray joined the cast, relegating Frawley to supporting player.
Frawley reportedly never felt comfortable with the out-of-sequence filming method used for My Three Sons after doing I Love Lucy in sequence for years. Each season was arranged so that main actor Fred MacMurray could film all of his scenes during two separate intensive blocks of filming for a total of 65 working days on the set; Frawley and the other actors worked around the absent MacMurray for the remainder of the year's production schedule. By the mid-1960s, alcohol and old age finally took their toll, and Frawley began forgetting his lines. 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 from the program and replaced by William Demarest, who played the role of Bub's brother, Uncle Charley, who moved in to keep house and take care of the family in Bub's absence.
In 1914, Frawley married fellow vaudevillian Edna Louise Bloedt. They developed an act, "Frawley and Louise", which they performed all across the country. Their act was described as "light comedy, with singing, dancing, and patter." The couple separated in 1921 (later divorcing in 1927). They had no children. His brother Paul Frawley (1889–1973) also was an actor on Broadway with relatively few appearances in motion pictures.
Frawley had a reputation for being cantankerous and difficult, likely exacerbated by a drinking problem. In 1928, he was fired from the Broadway show That's My Baby for punching actor Clifton Webb in the nose.
Final years and death
Frawley made two television appearances the year before his death. His appearance on the panel show I've Got a Secret on May 3, 1965, consisted of contestants guessing Frawley's "secret", which was that he was the first performer ever to sing "My Melancholy Baby", in 1912. He had performed that song previously on television, as Fred Mertz, in the 1958 episode "Lucy Goes to Sun Valley" on the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.
Frawley's final on-camera performance was on October 25, 1965, with a brief cameo appearance in Lucille Ball's second television sitcom, The Lucy Show, in the episode "Lucy and the Countess Have a Horse Guest". Frawley plays a horse trainer and Lucy comments: "You know, he reminds me of someone I used to know." (Vivian Vance, who by then had left The Lucy Show except for an occasional guest appearance, does not appear in the episode.)
Frawley died of a heart attack on March 3, 1966, in Hollywood, five days after his 79th birthday. Arnaz, Fred MacMurray, and My Three Sons executive producer Don Fedderson were pallbearers at his funeral. Lucille Ball said: "I've lost one of my dearest friends and show business has lost one of the greatest character actors of all time. Those of us who knew him and loved him will miss him."
William Frawley is buried in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, Los Angeles. For his achievements in the field of motion pictures, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6322 Hollywood Blvd on February 8, 1960. He is memorialized as well in the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in Jamestown, New York, which also contains his "Hippity-Hoppity" (frog) costume from an episode of I Love Lucy. Both Frawley and Vivian Vance were inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in March 2012.
The story of how Frawley was hired to play Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy is told in I Love Lucy: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Sitcom, a comedy that had its world premiere in Los Angeles on July 12, 2018. The play, from Gregg Oppenheimer (son of I Love Lucy creator-producer-head writer Jess Oppenheimer), was recorded in front of a live audience for nationwide public radio broadcast and online distribution.
Selected television (actor)
- I Love Lucy (1951–1957)
- The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show (1957–1960)
- The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford
(December 5, 1957)
- My Three Sons (1960–1965)
- The Lucy Show (1965 cameo, one episode)
- Merry, Merry (1925–1926)
- Bye, Bye, Bonnie (1927)
- She's My Baby (1928)
- Here's Howe (1928)
- Sons O' Guns (1929–1930)
- She Lived Next to the Firehouse (1931)
- Tell Her the Truth (1932)
- Twentieth Century (1932–1933)
- The Ghost Writer (1933)
- Bill Frawley Sings the Old Ones (1958) Dot DLP-3061