I Love William Frawley

Oct 1, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Drew Carey
What’s all this Lucy fuss? Lucy this, comedy genius that, blah blah blah. William Freakin’ Frawley, man! Fred Mertz! That’s what I’m talking about. Study his nuanced portrayal of the balding, aged, big-city landlord. The Concerned Friend: “Aw, Rick, I don’t know,” he’d say, rubbing his chin. The Sleuth: “I think the girls are up to something,” he’d say, rubbing his chin. The Ready Pal: “Say, Rick, that sounds like a good idea,” he’d say, rubbing his chin.
He had quite a voice too. Spent many years in vaudeville as a song-and-dance man. “Carolina in the Morning,” “Melancholy Baby,” remember those songs? If you do, thank William Frawley.
William Frawley was 64 years old when he was cast as Fred. He called Lucy personally and asked her for the job. He was old and needed work, but because of his reputation as an argumentative boozehound, nobody wanted to hire him. The sponsor (Philip Morris cigarettes) didn’t want him. CBS didn’t want him. Only Lucy wanted him, and only after she found out that her first three or four choices weren’t available. Was he grateful to her? Beholden? I don’t think he cared one way or the other. “I’m just going to take the money and run,” he would often say, with complete and utter professionalism. (By the way, I’ve heard that William Frawley and Vivian Vance didn’t get along well in real life. So what?)
And get this: William Frawley got time off to go to Yankee games. It was in his contract. If the Yankees were in the World Series, they were contractually bound to work around him while he went to the games. Can you imagine the sheer balls of a 64-year-old has-been asking for that in his contract and then getting it? “Hello Lucy? Bill Frawley, remember me? Yeah. Hey listen, I’m kind of on the skids now. Can I have a part on your show? I can? Gee, you’re swell. Hey, can I get time off to go to Yankees games too? Not all the time, you know, just when they’re in the World Series. I can? Wow, this calls for a drink!”
Jesus, I love this guy. Year in, year out, for nine long years, William Frawley did just what was expected of him and nothing less. Nothing more, sure. But nothing less. So OK, he drank. I drink too. He reportedly slept on the stage while the others rehearsed. I do that. “What’s so funny about `Hello, Ethel’?” he once asked. I don’t get it either.
With the 50th anniversary of the “I Love Lucy” show upon us, we’re hearing about nothing but Lucy. Lucy’s looks, Lucy’s talent, how Lucy always gave 110 percent no matter what. Poor William Frawley hardly gets mentioned at all. Yet William Frawley had one of the hardest jobs on TV: Being Fred Mertz, the Fourth Banana. How do you work up any desire at all, any type of caring attitude, when you know that you’re only going to have five or six lines a show-if you’re lucky? When you know that you’re going to get stuck giving all the exposition in the scene, and then you’re going to have to stand there and look like you’re awake while Lucy and Ethel and Ricky get all the laughs? How can you give a single rat’s patootie?
But that’s the beauty of William Frawley-he didn’t.
And you gotta love that.