July 22, 2009

The Very Brief Reunion of Lucy Ricardo and Fred Mertz

After six seasons on the air, the hugely successful I Love Lucy sitcom ended. The stars had tired of the weekly grind but transitioned to the more expensive The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show specials. A baker’s dozen of those were produced over three years. By the end, the writers had run dry and the marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball had fallen apart. The day after the production wrapped, Ball filed for divorce.

Before the show ended, it was proposed that the Mertz’s, played by William Frawley and Vivian Vance, continue in their own spin-off. The two had never liked each other off-screen but Frawley realized that the show could be very lucrative and agreed. Vance didn’t want any part of it and refused.

Sadly, the end of the specials was the last time that the four actors would ever play their iconic characters. Arnaz continued to produce and direct and acted occasionally before eventually retiring. Ball went on to act in three more series, movies, and specials. Vance co-starred on The Lucy Show for three seasons and then did guest shots and commercials after that.

After the end of the Lucy-Desi series of specials, Frawley went directly into a regular role on My Three Sons, playing Fred MacMurray’s gruff father-in-law. Despite the persona of the characters he played, Don Grady and Stanley Livingston have both indicated that he was very warm and affectionate to them off-screen.

Frawley did have his nasty side though and still didn’t care for Vance. It seems that The Lucy Show and My Three Sons were produced on neighboring soundstages. According to a recent interview on Stu’s Show, Grady and Livingston said that Frawley would give them Frisbees and tell them to toss them into the Lucy soundstage, just as Vance was filming a complicated scene.

In 1965, after five seasons on My Three Sons, Frawley was fired. His health had become so poor that it was no longer possible to insure him for the show. The actor wasn’t pleased about being let go and reportedly returned to the set on a regular basis until he was asked to stop. He died on March 3, 1966.

Fittingly, Frawley’s last on-screen appearance came in October 25, 1965 on The Lucy Show. Vance had already left the series and Frawley appears in just a brief cameo with Ball. For one brief moment, it’s like Lucy Ricardo and Fred Mertz are together again.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think it's entirely accurate that you characterize Frawley as being "fired." The producers wanted desperately to keep him on the show, but because he was in such a bad physical state, he could not pass the insurance exam. The Doctor on the lot was known to pass anybody who had a pulse, and told Producer John Stephens that Frawley should have been dead a year before. Still, they desperately wanted Frawley, as he was a big star at the time, so they gambled on letting him do half of the next season (a huge risk, considering he could drop dead at anytime) and finally found a suitable replacement in William Demerest. While Frawley wasn't pleased, it certainly shouldn't be characterized as "fired." Perhaps "written off the show," or "left the show due to health reasons."

    Frawley felt a great affection for the cast and crew of My Three Sons. He often treated the boys as his own children that he never had. Buying them nice gifts, taking them to ball games and being essentially a grandfather. However after being replaced, he was understandably upset, after having put so many years into a show that he loved with people whom he cared about.

    It didn't help that he never got along with Bill Demerest, even from their early years in films together. So he often visited the set and gave "critiques" about how inferior he thought Demerest's performance was. Alas he was asked to please keep quiet during filming and rehearsals, or not return to the set. He chose the latter.

    Shortly after this, he had prostate surgery, and required a male nurse to accompany him everywhere he went. Even so, he shot a great guest spot on "I've Got a Secret" and the cameo on "The Lucy Show." On March 3, 1966, he saw a movie on Hollywood Boulevard (Inside Daisy Clover). After leaving the theatre, he was politely signing autographs to fans and had begun to continue walking where he collapsed at the Hollywood/Ivar intersection. His male nurse dragged him to the nearby Knickerbocker Hotel (where'd he'd lived for almost 30 years, but had recently moved out of), where he was laid on a couch to wait for help.

    Unfortunately, by the time he arrived at the Hollywood Receiving Hospital on nearby Wilcox, he was dead.

    Fred MacMurray and the Executive Producer of My Three Sons, Don Fedderson (in addition to Desi Arnaz), were among his pallbearers. He kept great relationships until the end.