Would there have been a Lucy without an Ethel? Probably. But there’s not a more iconic duo than Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance. Their onscreen chemistry, as seen in I Love Lucy, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour and The Lucy Show is what sitcom history is made of.
Lucy and Ethel were the first television BFFs, and are still making new generations laugh…even 72 years after the show premiered. We could never forget Lucy and Ethel working the chocolate factory’s conveyor belt, stuffing bonbons into their faces to keep up with the pace. Or Lucy and Ethel buying a meat freezer and celebrating by buying two sides of beef, unaware of how much a side is and having to hock it at a local butcher…from a baby carriage. And of course when Lucy and Ethel added too much yeast to bread dough and it ended up creating a 10 food loaf.
The black-and-white sitcom first aired in October 1951, and went on to have 180 episodes. Vivian Vance portrayed Ethel in almost every single one. But what few may not know is that all the the antics of Lucy and Ethel almost didn’t happen. Here we take a look at the fascinating real-life relationship of two of the most iconic best friends on television.
Vivian Vance’s early life
Born Vivian Roberts Jones on July 26, 1909, in Cherryvale, Kansas, she began her dramatic studies at Independence High School after her family moved to Independence, Kansas. Viv, as she was known to friends and family, rebelled against her mother’s strict religious beliefs by sneaking out her bedroom window at night.
She soon moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico and changed her last name to Vance and made her acting debut in the first show at the Albuquerque Little Theatre in 1930 at age 21. Vance became a favorite performer and left an indelible impression on local audiences so they helped raise money to send her to New York to pursue acting.
Blessed with a beautiful singing voice, Vance replaced the star in the musical Hooray for What! in 1937. In 1941 she starred in the Cole Porter musical Let’s Face It! and also landed several jobs and musical gigs at nightclubs.
It was during a John Van Druten play The Voice of the Turtle that Desi Arnaz took note of the vivacious performer and almost immediately offered her the Ethel Mertz role that would change Vance’s life forever. But there was one hitch in Arnaz’s plan…Lucy.
Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance didn’t get along at first
Lucille Ball wasn’t as confident in casting Vance as her husband was. Ball wanted the character of Ethel, the landlady, to be played by an unattractive, older actress so that her own character would stand out more. Ball insisted that the best way for Ethel to be relatable to audiences was to be frumpy and a bit overweight.
Vance did not fit Ball’s mold and idea of Ethel Mertz — Vance had an extensive and successful theater career as a leading lady. Vance was attractive, confident and at 42, she was only two years older than Ball.
Ultimately Ball agreed to give Vance a try and discovered she and Vance had instant chemistry on screen. Always a savvy business woman, Ball saw a rare quality in Vance and soon realized she was the best choice for the part.
In a December 1951 episode Bea Benaderet guest starred as Miss Lewis; Benaderet was one of Ball’s original choices to play Ethel Mertz but was unavailable for each and every episode, since she was already playing Blanche Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.
Yet Vance and Ball were on a roll, which helped them work through their issues and and ultimately become lifelong friends as well as TV partners-in-crime.
A blossoming friendship
Lucie Arnaz, Ball’s daughter, said in an interview that Vance was always around when she was growing up. In fact, she ended up becoming like a surrogate aunt to Ball’s children. Ball and Vance always seemed like sisters to a young Lucie Arnaz.
As Arnaz described it, “I grew up with her around a lot. My mother and Vivian were really good friends in real life. Like sisters and good friends, they tell each other exactly what’s what. And they adored one another. When Vivian would get together with my mother, it was lovely.”
But it wasn’t easy for Vance to live in Ball’s shadow. At one point after I Love Lucy came to an end, Vance was interested in doing a series based on the life of Babs Hooten, a New York socialite who moves to New Mexico to run a hotel and ranch. Desi Arnaz financed a pilot in 1958 starring Vance as Hooten but the show was rejected by CBS. So Vance continued to play Ethel on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour until 1960.
In 1962, Ball was planning reviving the characters again on The Lucy Show but she would only return if her favorite co-star, Vivian Vance, also agreed. Vivian agreed but one condition remained. Her character on the new series would have to be named Vivian because she was tired of fans calling her Ethel in public. After three seasons, Vance departed the show in 1965.
The reason, fans speculate, is that Vance likely grew tired of commuting from her home in Stamford, Connecticut to Hollywood where the show was filmed. She did make three more appearances until the show ended in 1968 and also made guest appearances on Lucy’s third show, Here’s Lucy.
Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball’s true relationship
Vance and Ball remained friends until Vance’s passing in 1979 and they were always honest with each other like sisters, even when they were in a tiff. One instance was when Ball and Vance weren’t speaking for a few days and Ball repeated to Vance what her interpretation of a line should be. Vivian asked why she hadn’t mentioned it before. “Well, we weren’t speaking and I’d be damned if I’d tell you,” she said. The two doubled over in laughter, proving they couldn’t stay mad at each other for too long.
Their unshakable friendship was there until the very end when Vivian Vance died of bone cancer. Ball visited to say her goodbyes and according to Paige Peterson, an author and friend of Vance, “You could hear them laughing and towards the end there was a lot of sobbing, but it was an amazing thing to witness. The love of these two women.”
So in the end, the constant between Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance was truth, friendship and love.
Want to read about more of your favorite classic TV stars?
Bonnie Siegler is an established international writer covering the celebrity circuit for more than 15 years. Bonnie’s resume includes two books that combine her knowledge of entertaining with celebrity health and fitness and has written travel stories which focus on sustainable living. She has contributed to magazines including Woman’s World and First for Women, Elle, InStyle, Shape, TV Guide and Viva. Bonnie served as West Coast Entertainment Director for Rive Gauche Media overseeing the planning and development of print and digital content. She has also appeared on entertainment news shows Extra and Inside Edition.