‘I Love Lucy’: Here’s the Actors Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Called Their First Choice for ‘Fred’ and ‘Ethel’

by Matthew Wilson

Fred and Ethel were one of the most hilarious duos on “I Love Lucy.” But Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz originally had other actors in mind.

It’s hard to imagine other actors in the roles given how iconic the characters and the sitcom would become. But William Frawley and Vivian Vance weren’t their first choice to portray the show’s wacky landlords. Originally, Ball and Arnaz wanted Gale Gordon for Fred and Bea Benaderet for Ethel, according to IMDB.

Unfortunately, Benaderet starred on “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” at the time. And she couldn’t get out of her contract. Ultimately, production decided to cast Vance in the role. Meanwhile, Gordon also wasn’t available to join the sitcom. Ball and Arnaz then turned to James Gleason, their second choice for Fred.

Gleason also couldn’t do the role either. The couple then came across Frawley for the role. Ball was hesitant to cast him in the role. For one, Frawley had garnered a reputation as being a destructive element. He was living alone, currently unemployed and divorced. The actor was both an alcoholic and frequent gambler and known for his womanizing ways. Most probably would have passed Frawley over for the role.

Arnaz said, “He’s perfect!”

Desi Arnaz Stands Up for William Frawley

Arnaz saw a bit of himself in Frawley. He too would reportedly indulge in vices like alcohol. Over the years, his multiple infidelities would stress his marriage to Ball and ultimately lead to a divorce. Both men were similar in a lot of respects, and Arnaz found a kindred spirit in Frawley. He convinced Ball and the rest to give Frawley a chance in the role within reason. Production set up several conditions for Frawley.

Arnaz would only tolerate three lapses on Frawley’s part. The actor’s arrangement worked similar to baseball, and on the third strike, Frawley would be out of a job. For his part, Frawley accepted the arrangement and behaved himself when he was on set for “I Love Lucy” and its follow-up show.

It’s true that Frawley and Vance hated each other off-screen more than their characters did on-screen. But despite the hatred, they somehow made it work turning memorable scenes for years. To combat the visual effects of his alcohol withdrawal, Frawley often kept his hands in his pockets. This prevented audiences from seeing his hands shake and also created a character trait for Fred as well.

Arnaz and Ball’s gamble paid off, and they finally cast the show’s landlords.