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William Frawley: 15 Facts About the Beloved ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘My Three Sons’ Star

From vaudeville to Broadway to a hundred films, he was more than just Fred Mertz and 'Bub'


If you were to look up the word “curmudgeon,” there’s no doubt that you’d come across a photo of actor William Frawley. And the truth is, his real-life persona directly fed into his two most famous television characters, Fred Mertz on one of classic TV’s biggest hits, I Love Lucy; and Michael Francis “Bub” O’Casey on the long-running Fred MacMurray show, My Three Sons.

At the same time, it was this part of his personality that ended up delighting audiences and kept him on the air pretty consistently between Lucy‘s debut in 1951 and his departure from My Three Sons in 1965. And yet despite these successes, there was so much more to his life and career than most people probably realize. To rectify that, check out the following 15 facts about William Frawley.

(MUST READ: 1950s TV Sitcoms — 40 Classic (and Not So Classic) Shows, and Where to Stream Them)

1. His mother believed the acting world equated sin

William Frawley
William Frawley, circa 1951Getty Images

Born William Clement Frawley on February 26, 1887 in Burlington, Iowa, he sang in the choir of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, which led him to pursue roles in shows put on by local theaters. This infuriated his mother as she believed the acting world was the road to sin.

To placate her, he took a job as a stenographer for the Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha, Nebraska. After this, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a court reporter while also managing to get hired for a singing role in the stage musical comedy The Flirting Princess. However, still looking to make his mother happy, he found employment in a different railroad company and moved to St. Louis, Missouri.

2. Things began for him in vaudeville

For a brief time, William and his brother Paul created a vaudeville act, which broke up when Paul was called home by their mother. William, however, decided to push forward, writing a script titled Fun in a Vaudeville Agency, which sold for $500. It undoubtedly served as proof that he had talent, but he just needed to prove it to the rest of the world.

3. He married his only wife in 1914

William Frawley with ex-wife Edna Louise Broedt
William Frawley with ex-wife Edna Louise Broedt, 1917Courtesy Geoffrey Mark

While working in vaudeville, Frawley met and married the woman who would end up being his only wife: Edna Louise Bloedt. They decided to create what was described as a “light comedy, with singing, dancing and patter,” under the name Frawley and Louise, which they performed around the country. Things didn’t work out for them as they separated in 1921 and were formerly divorced in 1927.

This is only supposition, but the cause could very well be a growing drinking problem on Frawley’s part. In fact, he was fired from the Broadway show That’s My Baby after punching actor Clifton Webb in the nose. One thing we do know is that when he was featured in a 1961 episode of This is Your Life, they brought her out as a surprise and he was absolutely furious.

4. Broadway was a goal he achieved

William Frawley, 1938
Bing Crosby, with William Frawley and John Gallandeth at a football match, 1938 Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He continued the pursuit of singing, getting a job as one in a Denver café. It was there that he met a pianist named Frank Rather, the duo deciding to head to San Francisco with an act they called “A Man, a Piano and a Nut.” Then, in 1925, he found himself on Broadway in the show Merry, Merry followed by Twentieth Century in a dramatic role.

5. William Frawley wanted to break into Hollywood

John Wayne and William Frawley
John Wayne, Russell Hicks and William Frawley in 1945’s Flame of Barbara Coast©Republic Pictures/courtesy

Appearing in several short films, in 1933 he was featured in the Universal musical Moonlight and Pretzels. This resulted in his moving to Los Angeles, where he signed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures and found himself immersed in Hollywood.  Between 1933’s Hell and High Water and 1951’s Rhubarb, he worked as a character actor in over a hundred films (including the original Miracle on 34th Street). He was never a star, but worked pretty consistently.

(MUST READ: Miracle on 34th Street — 10 Little-Known Facts About the Christmas Classic)

6. By the early 1950s, he was at a career crossroads

"Bub" on My Three Sons
William Frawley as Michael ‘Bub’ O’Casey in the TV sitcom ‘My Three Sons, circa 1963 Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Despite the number of credits he’d amassed, by the early 1950s his movie career had slowed to a crawl, which is the primary reason that he began looking at television as a possibility. “With William Frawley at the time,” muses pop culture historian and The Lucy Book author Geoffrey Mark, “we have a man who is in his early 60s. He has been in a hundred films. He has been on the vaudeville stage. He had been a handsome song and dance man who had introduced the songs ‘Carolina in the Morning’ and ‘My Melancholy Baby.’”

He adds, “He’d just made a big Bob Hope film in the form of The Lemon Drop Kid, but he’s beginning to get a reputation for being an alcoholic and undependable. The parts aren’t as many as they used to be, which happens anyway. In show business; you reach a certain age and they just don’t have as many old man parts as they have young man parts.”

7. He had to negotiate to join I Love Lucy

William Frawley and Desi Arnaz
William Frawley and Desi Arnaz in a colorized moment from I Love Lucy, 1953©CBS;/courtesy

Reading about I Love Lucy in the Hollywood trades, and recognizing that it was based on the radio show My Favorite Husband, he assumed they were going to need an older couple to play opposite Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

He met with Arnaz and asked, “What have these other guys who you’re considering that I haven’t?” To which, according to Mark, he answered, “It’s not what they have that you don’t have, it’s what they don’t have that you do: your alcoholism. I’m putting my money into this and I can’t afford to miscast.”

They came to an arrangement, says Mark, which was that William Frawley “could play Fred Mertz, but the first time he missed anything because he was drunk — could be a line of dialogue, a cue, showing up to rehearsal drunk — he would lose that week’s pay for first offense. If there was a second, he would be fired and Desi assured him that he would see to it that Bill was blackballed in Hollywood.”

(MUST READ: Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of the 10 Funniest I Love Lucy Episodes)

8. William Frawley counter-negotiated with Desi Arnaz

William Frawley with Abbott and Costello and Joe DiMaggio
Joe DiMaggio pictured with comedy team Abbott and Costello and actor William Frawley, in this undated photo (Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

Laughs Geoffrey Mark, “Bill said, ‘Here’s my counter-offer: I agree to all of that, but if while I work for you the New York Yankees are in the World Series, you have to get me tickets, you have to send me there first class and put me up.’ They shook hands and the Yankees were in the World Series every year I Love Lucy was on.

“But the truth is, Bill Frawley was a tremendously talented man and Desi knew he would be an asset to his show. His sardonic point of view of life was perfect for Fred Mertz. At the same time, he was not an easy man to work with. He was very set in his ways, he didn’t particularly care for people. He liked to hang out with his Irish drinking buddies and gambling friends. He was misogynistic through and through, but if there was a pretty young girl around, he became charming. Otherwise, he couldn’t be bothered. So the writers wrote a lot of that into Fred Mertz, who developed based on the actual personality characteristics Bill Frawley had.”

(MUST READ: Desi Arnaz — I Love Lucy Biographer Remembers ‘The Prince of Cuba,’ EXCLUSIVE)

9. He hated Vivian Vance

It’s no secret that William Frawley hated Vivian Vance, the woman who portrayed his I Love Lucy wife Ethel Mertz. But the reason for that hatred? Explains Mark, “That antipathy began on Vivian’s first arrival at the studio where she was told that Bill would be playing her husband, to which she commented, ‘Husband? That old coot could be my grandfather!'”

Wanting to prove to everyone that he was going to be reliable, Frawley was the first one there that day and overheard her. “He took that one remark,” says Mark, “and ended up hating Vivian Vance with a vengeance that lasted the rest of his life.”

(MUST READ: Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball Almost Weren’t the Iconic Duo We Remember)

10. A weekly series was a challenge for him

 For a man in his 60s who drank too much, it was a challenge to get a script on a Monday and have it memorized by Thursday with blocking and occasionally songs and dances that needed to be performed well.

“He performed them beautifully,” opines Mark, “but it was difficult for him to focus. There were weeks where he’d be staring at a script and Vivian would say, ‘What are you doing?’ and he’d say, ‘I’m looking over my lines.’ And Vivian would turn around and say, ‘Bill, that was last week’s script. We’ve moved on, kiddo.’”

11. William Frawley stopped enjoying I Love Lucy

One point Mark makes is that that “as time went by, he felt I Love Lucy was repeating itself; that the first few seasons were funny, but after a while for him, as an actor, he was bored in his job. He was making nice money; both he and Vivian got tremendous raises as the show went on and they were doing commercials and getting extra money for that, but he was so tired of this show and being so tied to Vivian.”

12. Vivian Vance torpedoed a possible spin-off with Fred and Ethel

William Frawley and Vivian Vance
William Frawley and Vivian Vance frequently butted heads on I Love Lucy, 1950s George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

As I Love Lucy was entering its final days, producer Jess Oppenheimer came up with the idea of a spinoff that would focus on Fred and Ethel. Frawley was into the idea because he wanted the money, but Vance wanted nothing to do with it or him. “She couldn’t stand working with his negativity and foul mouth,” Mark points out, “so he had the added resentment of that.”

13. William Frawley became “Bub” on My Three Sons

The cast of My Three Sons
Some of the cast of the American TV sitcom ‘My Three Sons’, circa 1963 Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Even though the Mertz spinoff didn’t happen, his time on I Love Lucy made it easy to find his next job, playing “Bub,” grandfather to the Douglas boys on My Three Sons. The premise of the series — which ran from 1960 to 1972 — is that widower Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray) is raising his three sons Mike (Tim Considine), Robbie (Don Grady) and “Chip” (Stanley Livingston), eventually adopting Ernie Thompson (Barry Livingston). The show just followed the family through its gently-comic adventures.

William Frawley and Stanley Livingston
William Frawley and Stanley Livingston in the early 1960sCourtesy Stanley Livingston

Said Stanley Livingston of working with him, “When I was hired on My Three Sons and then found out he was going to be the grandfather, I was blown away. I wasn’t sure how he would be; I just knew I liked him. In fact, he was my favorite character on I Love Lucy — I just liked his weird grumpiness, which I thought was funny. And what you saw on the show pretty much mirrored what he was like in real life. Minus the four-letter words.”

Barry Livingston, William Frawley and Stanley Livingston
Party time for Barry Livingston, William Frawley and Stanley Livingston, early 1960sCourtesy Stanley Livingston

Adds Barry Livingston, ““He was a guy out of the Depression. He was a hard, hard nut and didn’t take any gruff from anybody, and it was shocking that he got away with a lot of the shenanigans that happened as soon as he got up in age. That was mainly the alcohol consumption, but he was also a big prankster and he was genuinely fun.”

(MUST READ: My Three Sons Stars Stanley and Barry Livingston Reveal 10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets About the Classic Sitcom)

14. Declining health resulted in William Frawley leaving the show

Stanley Livingston has nothing but warm memories of the man who played 'Bub' on My Three Sons
A nice moment between William Frawley and Stanley Livingston, early 1960sCourtesy Stanley Livingston

Five seasons in, William Frawley had to leave My Three Sons, largely because his health was in decline and he couldn’t pass the studio physical for insurance to remain. “Bill had a stroke, and it was decided mutually that the work was too much for him. He could still walk and talk, but his comedy timing and energy was off,” says Mark. “You can see on screen that Bill’s slowed down. He’s not drooping, he’s not slurring his words, but the bark wasn’t there anymore. You could see that, so they brought in William Demarest as his brother, who was supposed to help out while Bub was in Ireland.”

Notes Stanley Livingston, “The thing that I kept thinking about is that Bill wasn’t married. He didn’t have any kids or grandkids. All he really had at that time was My Three Sons, and when they took that away from him, he really had noting to live for.”

15. William Frawley’s final screen appearance was with Lucy

Frawley made his last on screen appearance in an episode of The Lucy Show, Lucille Ball’s follow up to I Love Lucy, and a scene featuring her and Ann Sothern. Details Mark, “The episode involves a race horse and they go to the track. They come up to a guy whose back is to them and say, ‘Excuse me, sir, we’re looking for … ‘, and the guy turns around and it’s Bill Frawley, leaning on a broom to keep himself steady.

'Lucy' and 'Fred'
Lucille Ball (1911 – 1989) hugs American William Frawley (1887 – 1966) in 1953 Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“He has a few lines and looks great; he doesn’t look sick and the audience loved seeing him. Lucille Ball turns to Ann Sothern and says, ‘You know, he reminds me of somebody I used to know.’ So the wink to the audience about Fred Mertz is there and even in the end credits, instead of saying, ‘with William Frawley,’ it says, ‘Our very own William Frawley.’ And that’s the last thing he did. He literally died taking a walk on Hollywood Boulevard.”

He passed on March 3, 1966 at the age of 79.

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