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Being Fred Mertz: The Life of William Frawley

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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.

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Art
Get Crazy With the Official Bob Ross Coloring Book
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If you watched Bob Ross's classic series The Joy of Painting for hours on end but didn’t come away a terribly capable artist, you can still enjoy replicating the amazing public television personality’s work. You can now pretend you’re painting along with the late, great PBS star using a brand-new adult coloring book based on his art.

The Bob Ross Coloring Book (Universe) is the first authorized coloring book based on Ross’s artistic archive. Ross, who would have turned 75 later this year, was all about giving his fans the confidence to pursue art even without extensive training. “There’s an artist hidden at the bottom of every single one of us,” the gentle genius said. So what better way to honor his memory than to relax with his coloring book?

Here’s a sneak peek of some of the Ross landscapes you can recreate, all while flipping through some of his best quotes and timeless tidbits of wisdom.

An black-and-white outline of a Bob ross painting of a mountain valley

A black-and-white outline of a Bob Ross painting shows a house nestled among trees.

A black-and-white outline of a Bob Ross painting shows a farm scene.

And remember, even if you color outside the lines, it’s still a work of art. As Ross said, “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.”

You can find The Bob Ross Coloring Book for about $14 on Amazon. Oh, and if you need even more Ross in your life, there’s now a Bob Ross wall calendar, too.

All images courtesy of Rizzoli.

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entertainment
8 Movies That Almost Starred Keanu Reeves
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Kevin Winter/Getty Images

He may not have the natural ease of Al Pacino, the classical training of Anthony Hopkins, the timeless cool of Jack Nicholson, or the raw versatility of Gary Oldman, but Keanu Reeves has been around long enough to have worked alongside each of those actors. Yet instead of Oscar nods, the actor whose first name means “cool breeze over the mountains” in Hawaiian has a handful of Razzie nominations.

While critical acclaim has mostly eluded Reeves during his 30-plus years in Hollywood, his movies have made nearly $2 billion at the box office. Whether because of his own choosiness or the decisions of studio powers-that-be, that tally could be much, much higher. To celebrate The Chosen One’s 53rd birthday, here are eight movies that almost starred Keanu Reeves.

1. X-MEN (2000)

In Hollywood’s version of the X-Men universe, Hugh Jackman is the definitive Wolverine. But Jackman himself was a last-minute replacement (for Dougray Scott) and other, bigger (in 2000) names were considered for the hirsute superhero—including Reeves. Ultimately, it was the studio that decided to go in a different direction, much to Reeves’ disappointment. “I always wanted to play Wolverine,” the actor told Moviefone in 2014. “But I didn't get that. And they have a great Wolverine now. I always wanted to play The Dark Knight. But I didn't get that one. They've had some great Batmans. So now I'm just enjoying them as an audience.”

2. PLATOON (1986)

For an action star, Reeves isn’t a huge fan of violence, which is why he passed on playing the lead in Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Vietnam classic. “Keanu turned it down because of the violence,” Stone told Entertainment Weekly in 2011. “He didn’t want to do violence.”

3. THE FLY II (1989)

Few people would likely mistake Reeves for the son of Jeff Goldblum, but producers were anxious to see him play the next generation of Goldblum’s insectile role in the sequel to The Fly. But Reeves wasn’t having any of it. Why? Simple: “I didn't like the script,” he told Movieline in 1990.

4. SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL (1997)

Speaking of sequels (and bad scripts): Reeves was ready to reprise his role as Jack Traven in Jan de Bont’s second go at the series … then he read it. “When I was offered Speed 2, Jan came to Chicago and so did Sandra, and they said, ‘You’ve got to do this,’” Reeves recalled to The Telegraph. “And I said, 'I read the script and I can’t. It’s called Speed, and it’s on a cruise ship.” (He's got a point.)

Even when the studio dangled a $12 million paycheck in front of him, Reeves said no. “I told [William Mechanic, then-head of Fox], ‘If I do this film, I will not come back up. You guys will send me to the bottom of the ocean and I will not make it back up again.’ I really felt like I was fighting for my life.”

5. HEAT (1995)

Reeves’ refusal to cave on Speed 2 didn’t sit well in Hollywood circles. And it didn't help that he also passed on playing Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer’s role) in Michael Mann’s Heat in order to spend a month playing Hamlet at Canada’s Manitoba Theatre Centre. From that point on, Reeves told The Telegraph that it’s been a struggle for him to book any studio movies. “That’s a good old Hollywood story! That was a whole, 'Hey, kid, this is what happens in Hollywood: I said no to the number two and I never worked with the studio again!’”

6. BOWFINGER (1999)

By the time Frank Oz’s Bowfinger rolled around, Eddie Murphy was pretty much the go-to guy for any dual role part, but the movie wasn’t always intended to play that way. Steve Martin, who both starred in and wrote the movie, had actually penned the part of Kit Ramsey for Reeves (whom he had worked with a decade earlier in Parenthood).

“When Steve gave me the script for Bowfinger, it wasn't written for Eddie Murphy,” producer Brian Grazer explained. “It was written for a white action star. It was written for Keanu Reeves, literally. I said, 'Why does it have to be an action star?' He said, 'That's the joke.' I said: 'What if it were Eddie Murphy, and Eddie Murphy played two characters? That could be really funny.' He said: 'You know, that'd be great—that'd be brilliant. Let's do that.' He processed it in about a minute, and he made a creative sea change.”

7. WATCHMEN (2009)

A year before Zack Snyder’s Watchmen hit theaters, Reeves confirmed to MTV what many had speculated: that he had turned down the chance to play Dr. Manhattan in the highly anticipated adaptation. But it wasn’t because of lack of interest on Reeves’ part; it just “didn't work out.” Still, he made it as far as a set visit: “They were shooting in Vancouver while we were filming so I went over to the set to say, 'hi.' They showed me some stuff and it looks amazing! I can’t wait. It’s going to be so killer, man!”

8. TROPIC THUNDER (2008)

By the time Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder made its way into theaters in the summer of 2008, the meta-comedy had been more than a decade in the making. So it’s understandable that the final product veered from Stiller’s original plan for the film, which included Reeves playing the role of Tugg Speedman (Stiller’s eventual part). Initially, Stiller had planned to cast himself as smarmy agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey picked up the slack).

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