‘I Love Lucy’: Here are the Real-Life People Who Inspired Characters Fred & Ethel

by Madison Miller

When “I Love Lucy” first premiered in October 1951, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo had become one of the most beloved couples on television. In real life, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were also major players in the entertainment world.

However, a huge part of the show’s success also came from the couple’s on-screen best friends, Fred and Ethel. Lucy always managed to drag Ethel into whatever scheme she had going on. It was usually Fred and Ricky that had to set things right by the end of the episode.

Fred and Ethel were played by William Frawley and Vivian Vance.

Arnaz and Ball took careful consideration when selecting the pair that would be their best friends on “I Love Lucy.” According to Screen Rant, Arnaz and Ball decided to write what they already knew. Fred and Ethel were actually based on real people in their lives. Ethel and Fred were inspired by Fred Arnaz and Ethel Merman. Fred Arnaz was the brother of Desi Arnaz. Ethel Merman was an artist, actress, and singer. She had a prolific musical theater career in roles like “Anything Goes,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Gypsy,” and “Hello, Dolly!”

In 1934, Ball and Merman co-starred together in a film called “Kid Millions.” She also appeared on an episode of “The Lucy Show” in 1964 called “Lucy Teaches Ethel Merman to Sing.”

Aaron Sorkin is currently creating the film “Being the Ricardos,” with Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. J.K. Simmons will be playing Fred actor William Frawley and Nina Arianda was cast as Ethel actor Vivian Vance.

Off-Screen Relationship Between ‘I Love Lucy’ Couple

While Fred and Ethel would often bicker and argue, the couple was still loving and affectionate on the show.

However, Vivian Vance and William Frawley didn’t have the best relationship when the cameras were off. According to “I Love Lucy: The Untold Story,” which is written by the son of Jess Oppenheimer, the show’s head writer and producer, things were rather tense between Frawley and Vance.

“Even though the entire world loved Lucy, everyone on I Love Lucy didn’t love everyone else. For one thing, Vivian Vance couldn’t stomach Bill Frawley. Actually, they got along quite well at first. But before long, Viv became upset at the fact that people so readily accepted her lovely young self as the wife of ‘that old man,’ as she called him,” Gregg Oppenheimer wrote.

After hearing the comment about being an “old man,” Frawley never really got over it. He would suggest lines like comparing Ethel to a sack full of doorknobs to try to get back at her.