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Vivian Vance (July 26, 1909 - August 17, 1979) was an Emmy award- winning American actress and singer, born in Cherryvale, Kansas] and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico as Vivian Roberta Jones.
Early career of Vivian Vance and I Love Lucy
During the early years of her career, Vance was featured in a few films, but worked primarily as a theater actress, appearing in 38 stage productions during her career. Some examples include playing Ethel Merman’s understudy in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (1934) and her appearances in Hooray for What! (1937) with Ed Wynn, Burlesque with Gypsy Rose Lee, and Skylark (1939) with Gertrude Lawrence. Vivian Vance also appeared in supporting roles in a few major Hollywood movies, such as The Secret Fury (1950) and The Blue Veil (1951).
When Desi Arnaz was casting his new sitcom I Love Lucy, starring himself and wife Lucille Ball, Ball’s first choice for the role of friend and landlady Ethel Mertz was Bea Benaderet. Benaderet was unavailable due to a previous commitment as one of the neighbors on the Burns and Allen show, so Arnaz went looking for another actress. He found her at the La Jolla Playhouse production of John Van Druten’s play The Voice of the Turtle. Upon seeing Vivian Vance, Arnaz knew he had found the perfect Ethel. Lucille Ball was less sure, since she had envisioned Ethel Mertz as much older and less attractive than Vance. In 1954, Ms. Vance won an Emmy award as “best supporting actress” for her role of Ethel Mertz. She was nominated 3 more times before the end of the series.
A youthful-looking and attractive woman, Vance was required to wear frumpy clothes that were actually a size smaller than Vance usually wore in order to make her appear overweight. Vance’s character was the less-than-prosperous resident of a New York City brownstone owned by her and husband Fred Mertz (William Frawley). Ms. Vance and Frawley, who was 22 years her senior, had a great chemistry on screen, but in life actually had a dislike for each other (reportedly after Vance complained about being “married” to a man old enough to be her father). Vance’s then real-life husband, Phil Ober, occasionally played guest supporting roles on the series, most notably as producer Dore Schary in one of the Hollywood episodes.
Vance and Frawley were given the opportunity to begin their own Fred and Ethel spin-off once Lucy had run its course in 1957. Although Frawley was interested, Vance stated she had no interest in working with Frawley. However, she did consent to play Ethel Mertz on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-1960). Perhaps unbeknownst to Vance, every time her agent negotiated a salary increase for her, boss Desi Arnaz would give Frawley the same pay hike.
Vivian Vance and The Lucy Show
In 1962, when Ball was planning to return to television in a new series, she asked Vance to once again join her onscreen as no one else could play against Lucy as well as Ms. Vance could. Vance agreed with the stipulation that she be allowed to appear in more glamorous clothes, and that her character be named “Vivian”. (She was tired of the public addressing her as “Ethel”.) She appeared on The Lucy Show from 1962 until 1965, as Vivian Bagley, a divorced mother of one son, sharing a house with Ball’s character. Vance remained with the show for three of its six years before retiring to Connecticut. She made a handful of guest appearances on The Lucy Show‘s remaining seasons.
Over the next several years, Vance appeared occasionally alongside Ball on reunion shows and for guest appearances on Here’s Lucy (1968-74). During the mid-1970s, she took small roles on television series such as Love, American Style (1969) and Rhoda (1974) and tv movies such as The Great Houdinis in (1976) .
Her final television appearance was on the last CBS Lucy production, Lucy Calls the President, which aired November 21, 1977, and featured many of the cast members from The Lucy Show.
It was during this period Vivian played the part of Maxine, who wheeled around a catering truck, dispensing “Maxwell House Coffee” to office workers in a set of television commercials.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1977, which spread to her bones, and became a terminal illness. Ms. Vance died on August 17, 1979 in Belvedere, CA at age 70.
Vivan Vance played a significant part in the history of television. She defined the role of second banana, paving the way for future female sidekicks. She was also the first person to win the Best Supporting Actress Emmy.
Vivian Vance – Emmy Awards
- 1954: Won – Best Series Supporting Actress for: “I Love Lucy”
- 1955: Nominated – Best Supporting Actress in a Regular Series for: “I Love Lucy”
- 1957: Nominated – Best Supporting Performance by an Actress for: “I Love Lucy”
- 1958: Nominated – Best Continuing Supporting Performance by an Actress in a Dramatic or Comedy Series for: “I Love Lucy
Trivia about Vivian Vance
- A common misconception is that Vance was contractually obligated to be 20 pounds overweight during her entire run on I Love Lucy due to Lucille Ball’s concern that she would not appear as attractive if Vance was allowed to appear as she naturally was. This misconception is fueled by Vance’s natural weight gain and loss through the years on the show; It is, however, untrue
- Grew up in same town as silent star Louise Brooks who was a sometime play companion
- In a Lucy parody on the sitcom That 70’s Show, Debra Jo Rupp bears a significant resemblance to Vivian on her role as Ethel Mertz. The parody also features Wilmer Valderrama as Ricky, Laura Prepon as Lucy, and Kurtwood Smith as Fred
References on Vivian Vance
The Other Side of Ethel Mertz: The Life Story of Vivian Vance by Frank Castelluccio & Alvin Walker, published by Knowledge, Ideas & Trends, Inc. (1998)