Vivian Vance and William Frawley had a complicated relationship behind the scenes of I Love Lucy. Well, that’s not exactly true. They hated each other. They were so believable as the always-bickering Fred and Ethel Mertz, the Ricardos’ next-door neighbors because they weren’t acting. Though, there was begrudging respect for one another on some level. It’s something that Aaron Sorkin tried to recreate in Being the Ricardos.
Nina Arianda plays Vance alongside J.K. Simmons’ Frawley in the new movie about the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The actors don’t hate each other, so it took work to find that right balance, Arianda told Variety.
Arianda said she tried to put herself in Vivian Vance’s shoes. Vance was an ingenue in films and on the stage and was an accomplished dancer before joining I Love Lucy. But the show dressed her as a frumpy housewife and saddled her with a man 22 years her senior. Behind the scenes, Frawley was a mean alcoholic who enjoyed making Vance unhappy. Arianda let that information shape her performance in Being the Ricardos.
“… In my mind, if I’m Vivian playing Ethel, you can’t escape the fact that potentially your co-star smells like whiskey,” Arianda said. “That visceral experience is there. Luckily, [Vivian and William Frawley] were very much butting heads on the actual show a Fred and Ethel. It blended perfectly, but they had this physical vocabulary from their theater days that works. It’s a shorthand that exists between artists.”
That shorthand gave them some reprieve. They at least had a professional — if unspoken — respect and understanding, Arianda said.
How Did Vivian Vance Transform into Ethel Mertz for ‘I Love Lucy?’
Ball laid out what she wanted for the character. If Vance wanted to keep her job, she’d need to “ugly” herself up for the role, the actress told the author of The Lucy Book.
“(Ethel is) overweight and she has bleached blonde hair with frizzy permanent and dark roots, and she wears tacky clothes,” Vance recalled Ball saying.
The star gave her two weeks to get into character, or they’d recast the part. So Vance got to work.
“She went to a hairstylist and had her hair dyed to a light yellow blonde with some dark roots, and she was over-permed,” The Lucy Book says. “She went to a store and bought her bra, panties, stockings, dress, and shoes a size too small, so no matter what weight she actually was, the clothing would look dumpy on her. And she didn’t wear a girdle, which every woman wore back then. Miss Vance, when she wasn’t playing Ethel, was, in fact, a very sexy woman, but she was willing to look the fool and was willing to give the show what it needed to succeed.”
Over time, the portrayal began to grate on Vance. Being the Ricardos explores Vance’s struggles to accept that despite being on a smash hit TV show.