William Clement Frawley (February 26, 1887 – March 3, 1966) was an American stage entertainer, screen and television actor. Although Frawley acted in over 100 films, he is best known for his television work, playing landlord Fred Mertz in the long-running situation comedy I Love Lucy and "Bub" in another TV comedy series, My Three Sons.
William was born to Michael A. Frawley and Mary E. Brady in Burlington, Iowa. As a young boy, Bill (as he was commonly called) attended RomanCatholic school and sang with the St. Paul's Church choir. As he got older, he loved playing bit roles in local theater productions, as well as performing in amateur shows. However, his mother, a religious woman, discouraged the idea.
William did two years of office work at Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha, Nebraska. He later relocated to Chicago and found a job as a court reporter. Soon thereafter, against his mother's wishes, Frawley obtained a singing part in the musical comedy The Flirting Princess. To appease his mother, Bill relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, to work for another railroad company.
Unhappy with his railroad job, Frawley longed to be an actor. He finally decided he couldn't resist and formed a vaudeville act with his younger brother, Paul. Six months later, Frawley's mother told Paul to return to Iowa. It was during this period that William Frawley wrote a script titled, Fun in a Vaudeville Agency. He earned more than five hundred dollars for his efforts. After this, he decided to relocate to the West, settling in Denver, Colorado. Frawley was hired as a singer at a café and teamed with pianist Franz Rath. The two men relocated 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." In 1958, he recorded many of his old stage songs on the LP, Bill Frawley Sings the Old Ones. In 1965, he performed for the CBS-TV show I've Got A Secret, where he sang, "My Melancholy Baby," to the panel after revealing his secret (that he first introduced this famous song).
With James Cagney in Something to Sing About
Frawley began performing in Broadway theater. His first such show was the musical comedy, Merry, Merry, in 1925. Frawley 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 it wasn’t until 1933 that he decided to develop a cinematic career, beginning with short comedy films, and the feature musical Moonlight and Pretzels (Universal Studios, 1933). He relocated to Los Angeles and 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. Frawley had a notable performance in the 1947 holiday favorite, Miracle on 34th Street, as Judge Harper's political adviser (who warns his client in great detail of the dire political consequences if he rules that there is not any Santa Claus). Some of his other memorable film roles were as the baseball manager in Joe E. Brown's Elmer, the Great (1933), and as the wedding host in Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
I Love Lucy
Cast members from left, standing: William Frawley, Desi Arnaz, seated: Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball.
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.
Actress Bea Benaderet, a friend of Lucille Ball, was the first choice to play the character of Ethel Mertz. Benaderet was unavailable, however, owing to a prior commitment. One evening, Frawley 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 that it would be great to have Frawley, a motion picture veteran, appear as Fred Mertz. Less enthusiastic were CBS executives, who warned of Bill's frequent drinking and instability. Arnaz immediately told 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. Contrary to the network's concerns, Frawley never arrived at work drunk, and in fact mastered his lines after only one reading. Arnaz eventually became one of the misanthropic 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 to 1960 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 times (for 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956 and 1957) for "Outstanding Supporting Actor" in a comedy series.
During 1960, 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, however, refused the offer, having no desire to work with Frawley again. Afterward, and for the remainder of Frawley's life, he and Vance had very little contact with each other.
My Three Sons
While appearing on My Three Sons
, Frawley was the subject ofThis Is Your Life
in January 1961. He received a lifetime baseball pass from the Angels' Fred Haney. Fred MacMurray also was part of the show.
Frawley next joined the cast of the ABC (later CBS) situation comedy My Three Sons, playing live-in grandfather/housekeeper Michael Francis "Bub" O'Casey beginning in 1960. Featuring Fred MacMurray, the series was about a widower raising his three sons.
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's episodes were 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.
Poor health forced Frawley's retirement from the show after five years. He was dropped from My Three Sons after the studio could no longer obtain insurance for him. He was replaced as live-in housekeeper by actor William Demarest, who played Bub's brother, Uncle Charley. According to the book Meet the Mertzes, Frawley often would visit the studio after his retirement. He did not hide his resentment of Demarest and was eventually asked not to return to the set.
In 1914, Frawley married fellow vaudevillian Edna Louise Broedt (1893–1992). 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 did not have any children.
Frawley made two final on-screen appearances 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 performed the song previously as Fred Mertz on the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1958), in the "Lucy Goes to Sun Valley" episode.
His final on-camera performance was in October 1965, a brief cameo appearance in Lucille Ball's second television sitcom The Lucy Show with Frawley playing a horse trainer and Lucy commenting, "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 that episode.)
On March 3, 1966, Frawley collapsed of a heart attack while walking down Hollywood Boulevard after seeing the movie Inside Daisy Clover. He was dragged to the nearby Knickerbocker Hotel, where he had previously lived for many years, by his nurse — a constant companion since his prostate cancer operation more than a year before. He was then rushed to the nearby Hollywood Receiving Hospital (now the Hollywood LAPD Precinct) on Wilcox Avenue, where he was pronounced dead.
Soon after Frawley's death, Desi Arnaz paid for a full-page advertisement in the newspaper Hollywood Reporter. It had a picture of Frawley, surrounded in black, the dates of his birth and death, and the caption, "Buenas Noches, Amigo!" ("Good Night, Friend!"). Arnaz, Frawley's My Three Sons co-star Fred MacMurray, and executive producer Don Fedderson were pallbearers at Frawley's funeral.
Lucille Ball issued the statement: "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."
Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6322 Hollywood Blvd.
He is buried in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, Los Angeles, California.
For his achievements in the field of motion pictures, Frawley was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6322 Hollywood Blvd.
Frawley is memorialized in the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in Jamestown, New York, which also contains his "Hop-Along the Frog" costume from an episode of I Love Lucy.
Frawley and Vance were inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in March 2012.