Lucille Ball was furious when she first met Vivian Vance and learned she was to play Ethel Mertz. Vance wasn’t what she had envisioned for the iconic role in I Love Lucy. Vance was young and attractive. The script called for someone older and disheveled.
Vance recalled that first meeting to Geoffrey Mark, author of The Lucy Book.
The I Love Lucy landlady told Mark she was at the first day of rehearsal when Lucille Ball walked in, thinking she was there to audition. But when Ball learned she had already been cast to play Mertz, the comedy icon was apoplectic.
‘You can’t play Ethel,” Ball supposedly said. “You’re my age. You have the same color hair. You have an attractive figure. You’re pretty.”
Vance, wanting to keep the job, asked Ball what Ethel Mertz was supposed to look like.
“Oh, she’s overweight and she has bleached blonde hair with a frizzy permanent and dark roots and she wears tacky clothes,” Ball told her. “Look, it’s Monday. I can’t give you that for Friday, but next Friday I can give you that.’”
So, Vance got to work, determined to ‘ugly’ herself up for the role and prove she could share the stage with Ball.
Closer Weekly spoke with Mark about how Vance went from outcast to cast comrade in such a short period of time.
Vance Becomes Ethel Mertz for ‘I Love Lucy’
Vivian Vance followed Ball’s orders to the letter, Mark said.
“She went to a hairstylist and had her hair dyed to a light yellow blonde with some dark roots, and she was over-permed. 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.Geoffrey Mark, author of The Lucy Book to Closer Look
You can actually see the transformation during the first season of I Love Lucy. That’s because the show filmed out of order. That means the earliest episode they taped was the fourth or fifth that CBS aired. Vance and the show were still honing the look in those early episodes.
But it was clear and Vance was the right choice for Mertz. And Ball and the writers began to pick up on her potential.
“It took several months of filming for Ms. Ball to realize what she had with Vivian,” suggests Mark, “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.”