CLOSE

Being Fred Mertz: The Life of William Frawley

The Early Years

The man who achieved television immortality as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy was born in Burlington, Iowa, on February 26, 1887. As a young boy, William Clement Frawley sang in the choir at St. Paul's Catholic Church and played at the Burlington Opera House. His first job was as a stenographer for the Union Pacific Railroad; he later found employment as a court reporter.

Finding Fame

Bitten by the show biz bug, he soon began performing a vaudeville act with his brother Paul.

In 1914, he married Edna Louise Broedt (his only marriage) and the two performed in vaudeville together in a light comedy act as "Frawley and Louise," touring the Orpheum and the Keith circuits until their divorce in 1927.

Possessing a deep, bass singing voice, Frawley also had a successful singing career, appearing on Broadway and reportedly introducing the songs "My Mammy" and "My Melancholy Baby" to stage audiences.

In 1916, Frawley signed a contract with Paramount Studios to appear in silent films. For the next 35 years, Frawley was a beloved character actor and a familiar face in more than 100 films. His movie credits are eclectic as well as prolific and include such popular films as Gentleman Jim (1942) with Errol Flynn, Going My Way (1944) with Bing Crosby, the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947). He also made two appearances with Abbott and Costello—A Night in the Tropics (1940) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)—and one with Bob Hope, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951).

Bad Reputation

Although a highly successful "working actor" in films, Frawley's movie career had begun to slow down by 1951. This seems to have two reasons, one of which was his legendary crabby, gruff, and misanthropic personality. A notorious curmudgeon, by 1951 Frawley discovered that fewer and fewer actors, directors, and producers were willing to put up with him. (As early as 1928, Frawley had been fired from the Broadway show That's My Baby for punching actor Clifton Webb in the nose.)

The other cause for the slowing of his career was his equally notorious love for the bottle. So, in mid-1951, when actress Lucille Ball contacted Frawley about the possibility of taking on the role of gruff landlord Fred Mertz in her new comedy television series, I Love Lucy, she and her husband/co-star Desi Arnaz were more than a bit leery. Unable to get Gale Gordon, their first choice for the role, Arnaz contacted Frawley and laid down the law. He simply told Frawley that he'd get three chances. The first screw-up would be tolerated, the second would get him a severe reprimand, and the third would get him fired.

Frawley, by then 64 years old, long-divorced, and unemployed, living alone in his Hollywood apartment, agreed to Arnaz's terms and was to conduct himself professionally over the course of the next nine years, until the show and its follow-up series, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, ended their legendary runs in 1960.

I Love Lucy

On the first day of I Love Lucy rehearsals, Frawley overheard his scripted "wife," co-star Vivian Vance (22 years his junior), say to Lucy and Desi, "I can't play his wife. No one will believe I'm married to that old coot." (Note: The word "coot" may have been replaced by a much cruder epithet by Vance.) Whatever she actually did say, Frawley was never to forgive her and, for the next nine years, although they played one of the funniest husband and wife teams in TV history, by all accounts the two hated each other.

Interestingly (and fortunately), this intense hatred seemed to actually help their performances and their back-and-forth barbs and insults played even funnier because of it. (After Lucy ended its original run, a spin-off called Fred and Ethel was discussed. Frawley was willing to put aside his feelings toward Vance and saw the financial possibilities of the series, but Vance adamantly refused to ever work with Frawley again.)

A lifelong baseball fan, Frawley had insisted on a unique clause in his I Love Lucy contract: If his beloved New York Yankees made it to the World Series, he would be given time off in October for the World Series. This clause came into play seven times during Frawley's I Love Lucy run and caused him to be written out of two full episodes.

Frawley earned five consecutive Emmy nominations (1953-1957) for his always brilliant performances. Although he never won, Frawley's Fred Mertz remains one of the most beloved characters in the history of television.

Despite his animosity toward Vance, Frawley did develop one of the few genuine friendships of his life during I Love Lucy, becoming close with Desi Arnaz. Arnaz, the show's producer, made sure his friend was well-paid; by the end, Frawley was pulling $7,500 a week, a very generous rate for the time, plus a good residual deal (which few actors had in the early days of television).

My Three Sons

After the 1960 cancellation of Lucy, Frawley immediately found steady work as "Bub" O'Casey, another lovable curmudgeon, on the series My Three Sons. Much like his I Love Lucy stint, Frawley's My Three Sons work was done professionally and without incident. (Still harboring bad feelings for Vivian Vance, though, he did allegedly enjoy gathering cans of film at the Desilu studios and tossing them onto the adjacent soundstage, where Vance was then working on The Lucy Show; the loud clanging would inevitably upset Vance, much to Frawley's delight.)

By the mid-1960s, though, alcohol and old age finally took their toll, and Frawley began forgetting his lines. One muffed take would follow another, and he'd try to cover his embarrassment by bellowing insults like, "Who writes this crap, anyway?" If the company didn't get his scenes filmed in the mornings, Frawley would sometimes nod off in the middle of afternoon filmings. Eventually, a prop man had to lie on the floor, out of the camera's view, and tap Frawley's shoe to keep him from dozing off in the close-ups. 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.

The End

William Frawley's last ever TV appearance was with his former co-star Lucille Ball on a 1965 episode of The Lucy Show titled "The Traveller." In the brief cameo, as Frawley walks by, Lucy turns her head, sees him, and remarks, "He reminds me of someone I used to know."

On March 3, 1966, 79-year-old William Frawley died of a heart attack while walking home from a movie. According to Hollywood lore, when Vance heard the news of his death, she shouted, "Champagne for everyone!"

In Frawley's honor, Desi Arnaz immediately took out a full-page ad in all the trade papers with the words "Buenos noches, amigo." Arnaz was to serve as one of the pallbearers at Frawley's funeral.


Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.

twitterbanner.jpg

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
Getty Images
Getty Images

Though Mister Rogers' Neighborhood premiered 50 years ago, Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of the groundbreaking children's series' 50th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”

1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.

According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.

2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.

Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.

Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.

4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.

It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.

5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.

Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.

6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.

Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.

A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.

8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.

If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.

9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.

Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.

10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.

According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.

11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.

It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”

13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.

In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.

14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.

Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.

15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.

In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
Getty Images
Getty Images

Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens’ maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios