I Love Lucy fans adored the relationship of Lucille Ball and her real-life husband Desi Arnaz.
But the most lasting relationship out of I Love Lucy, the classic sitcom from the 1950s, was Lucy’s long-lasting relationship with Ethel Mertz, aka Vivian Vance.
And to think, the two actresses didn’t immediately hit it off when Vance joined the I Love Lucy cast way back in 1951. Their first meeting was an icy one. According to IMDB.com, a staffer asked Vance if she still could work with Ball and used the b-word to describe the star.
“If this show’s a success then I’m going to learn to love that ‘female dog,” Vance quipped.
Geoffrey Mark, who wrote The Lucy Book, said it took a short time for the two women to mesh on I Love Lucy.
“It took several months of filming for Ms. Ball to realize what she had with Vivian,” Mark said. “Which is why, as the show goes on, the Ethel Mertz character gets more and more prominent, because she realized that as well as she and Desi worked together, actually the better team was Lucy and Ethel.”
Talk about success, I Love Lucy ran from 1951-57. Folks loved Lucy and Ricky and also adored Ethel and Fred. The Mertz’s owned the apartment building where everyone lived. And although William Frawley, who played Fred, was 22 years older than Vance in real life, the couple had believable chemistry on set.
Vance won an Emmy for best supporting actress for I Love Lucy in 1954 and earned three other nominations.
Post I Love Lucy, Vance Was Ball’s Best Friend in Another Series
So when the I Love Lucy Show ended in 1957, cast members stuck around for some hour-long specials. Then, when Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz split up in real life, Lucy secured Ethel in the divorce settlement.
Ball got another series, which evolved from I Love Lucy to The Lucy Show. And Vivian Vance, again, played her best friend. But this time, her name was Vivian Bagley and she asked that her character wear more stylish clothes. Vance wanted to bury frumpy Ethel. In the show, the two women lived in the same home. Lucy was a widow with two kids. And Vance was divorced and raising a son. Vance, who grew tired of commuting between New York and LA, left the show in 1965.
Still, Vance couldn’t quit Lucy. She made guest appearances on Lucille Ball’s next network project — Here’s Lucy. Their final project together was a CBS special named Lucy Calls the President. That was in 1977. The same year, Vance suffered a stroke. She died in 1979 of breast cancer.
A few days before she died, Ball went to see her long-time friend from the I Love Lucy series and so many other shows.
People magazine talked to Paige Peterson, a long-time friend of Vance’s who was there the day the two stars spoke for a final time.
“You could hear them laughing, and towards the end there was a lot of sobbing,” Peterson said. “It was an amazing thing to witness. The love of these two women.”