When Desi Arnaz and wife Lucille Ball were casting their new television sitcom I Love Lucy in 1951, director Marc Daniels, who had previously worked with Vance in a theater production, suggested her for the role of landlady Ethel Mertz. Lucille Ball had wanted either Bea Benaderet or Barbara Pepper, both close friends, to play the role. CBS refused Pepper on the grounds that she had a drinking problem, and Benaderet was already playing Blanche Morton on the Burns and Allentelevision series. Arnaz then began searching for another actress. Daniels took Arnaz to the La Jolla Playhouse, along with producer Jess Oppenheimer, to see Vance in the John Van Druten play The Voice of the Turtle. While watching her perform, Arnaz was convinced he had found the right actress to play Ethel Mertz. Ball was less sure. She had envisioned Ethel to be much older and less attractive. Vance, however, was close to Ball’s age and was attractive. In addition, Ball, firmly entrenched in film and radio, had never heard of Vance, who was primarily a theater actress.
Nonetheless, the 42-year-old Vance was given the role on the new television program, which debuted October 15, 1951, on CBS. Throughout the run of the show, Vance’s character of Ethel Mertz was usually dressed in less stylish clothing than Ball’s character in order to tone down her attractiveness and make her look older than she actually was. Although Vance’s and Ball’s friendship was lukewarm initially, Ball eventually overcame her resistance to Vance and began respecting her as a friend and an actress, and the two formed a close friendship.
Vance’s Ethel Mertz character was the landlady of a New York City brownstone, owned by her and husband Fred Mertz on East 68th Street. The role of Fred was played by William Frawley, who was 22 years her senior in real life. While Vance and Frawley shared great acting, comedic, and musical chemistry on-screen, off-screen they did not get along. According to some reports, things first went sour when Frawley overheard Vance complaining about his age, stating that he should be playing her father rather than her husband. She used to skim through the script before she memorized her lines to see how many scenes she had with that “stubborn-headed little Irishman.” Others recall that Vance and Frawley practically loathed each other on sight, and that Vance was put off by Frawley’s cantankerous attitude
Honored for her work in 1953, Vance became the first actress to win an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Supporting Actress”. Vance accepted her award at the Emmy ceremony in February 1954. She was nominated an additional three times (for 1954, 1956, and 1957) before the end of the series.
In 1957, after the highly successful half-hour I Love Lucy episodes had ended, Vance continued playing Ethel Mertz on a series of hour-long specials titled The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show (later retitled The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour). In 1959, she divorced her third husband, Philip Ober, who allegedly physically abused her. When I Love Lucy was reformatted into the hour-long Lucy-Desi shows in 1957, Desi Arnaz proposed to Vance and Frawley the opportunity to star in their own “Fred and Ethel” spin-off show. Although Frawley was very interested, Vance declined, mainly because she did not want to work on a one-on-one basis with Frawley as they already did not get along. Also, she felt the Mertz characters would be unsuccessful in a show without the Ricardos. Vance declining the would-be show intensified the animosity between her and Frawley. Instead, 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 starring Vance as Hooten titled Guestward, Ho! which was shot in 1958 by Desilu; however, the show was rejected by CBS and in turn Vance continued in her Ethel Mertz role. Arnaz would later retool the show with model and actress Joanne Dru taking the lead role, selling the series to ABC, where it was subsequently cancelled after one season.
On January 16, 1961, Vance married literary agent, editor, and publisher John Dodds (1922-October 9, 1986). The couple established their home in Stamford, Connecticut, although they moved to California in 1974; the marriage lasted until Vance’s death. In 1962, Lucille Ball was planning to return to television in a new series, The Lucy Show. The series starred Ball as Lucy Carmichael, a widow with two children living in Danfield, New York. Vance reluctantly agreed to be her co-star on the condition that she be allowed to appear in more glamorous clothes as well as having her character be named “Vivian”. By this time in her life, Vance had grown tired of the public addressing her as “Ethel”.
She appeared on The Lucy Show from 1962–65, as Vivian Bagley, a divorced mother of one son, sharing a house with Ball’s character. The character was the firstdivorcee ever on a weekly American television series. The strain of commuting from her home in Connecticut to Hollywood was too hard on her. In the third season, Vance didn’t appear in 7 of the season’s 26 episodes. In 1965, after completing her third year on the series, Vance decided to leave. At the start of the 1965-66 season, the format of the sitcom had changed. The “Lucy” character moved out to Los Angeles. Vivian Bagley remarried and she, her son, and her new husband remained in Danfield. Before she departed the show, Vance was offered a new contract with Desilu Studios, giving her the opportunity to direct. This never came to fruition as Vance could not reach an agreement on salary. She made only three more guest appearances on the remaining seasons of The Lucy Show.
Following her departure from The Lucy Show at the end of the third season, Vance signed on to appear in a Blake Edwards film, The Great Race. Vance saw this as an opportunity to restart a movie career which never really took off. The film was a moderate success, receiving several Academy Award nominations; however, it did little to help Vance establish a career as a movie actress. Vance was slated to make her return to Broadway in the Woody Allen comedy Don’t Drink the Water. However, Vance left the play during its out-of-town tryouts, later saying she felt the role was not right for her and asked the show’s producers to be let out of her contract. Vance would end up making her Broadway return several years later in 1969 in the comedy My Daughter, Your Son. However, the show was not a success and lasted only five weeks. A national tour proved to be more successful.
After her departure from The Lucy Show, Vance appeared occasionally alongside Ball on reunion shows and made several guest appearances on Ball’s third sitcom, Here’s Lucy (1968–1974). In 1973, Vance was diagnosed with breast cancer. The following year, she and her husband moved to Belvedere, California, so she could be near her sister. It was during this period that Vance’s agent got her an endorsement deal with Maxwell House Coffee. Over the next several years she could be seen in numerous commercials for Maxwell House. The 1970s saw Vance making a number of TV guest appearances, including a well-remembered 1975 episode of Rhoda, as well as appearing in a number of made for TV movies including The Front Page (1970), Getting Away From it All (1972) and The Great Houdini. Vance made her final television appearance with Lucille Ball on the CBS special Lucy Calls the President, which aired November 21, 1977. That same year, Vance suffered a stroke which left her partiallyparalyzed.
She died on August 17, 1979, of bone cancer (secondary to breast cancer). After her death, Desi Arnaz remarked, “It’s bad enough to lose one of the great artists we had the honor and the pleasure to work with, but it’s even harder to reconcile the loss of one of your best friends.”
Prophetically, one of Vance’s lines from The Great Houdini was, “I’d rather be cremated. …I’ll keep warm longer.” true to her word, Vance was cremated, and the ashes scattered at sea. True to her word, Vance’s body was cremated, and the ashes scattered at sea. Family members donated Vance’s Emmy Award to theAlbuquerque Little Theatre after her death. During a 1986 interview, Lucille Ball talked about watching I Love Lucy reruns and her reaction to Vance’s performance: “I find that now I usually spend my time looking at Viv. Viv was sensational. And back then, there were things I had to do—I was in the projection room for some reason, and I just couldn’t concentrate on it. But now I can. And I enjoy every move that Viv made. She was something.”
For her achievements in the field of television, Vance was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991 at 7030 Hollywood Boulevard.
Vance is memorialized in the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in Jamestown, New York. On January 20, 2010, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a local antique dealer had inherited many of Vance’s photos and scrapbooks and a manuscript of Vance’s unpublished autobiography when John Dodds died in 1986. Vance and Frawley were inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in March 2012.
Vance was the godmother of Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist John Sebastian, whose mother had been a close friend. Vance herself had no children.