He's become such a part of pop culture that's hard to imagine William Frawley toiled pretty much in obscurity for over forty years before landing the part of Fred Mertz on one of the most beloved television shows of all time, I Love Lucy. Following that the jump to Bub on My Three Sons is an afterthought even if it's probably the second Frawley role that's going to jump to mind.
You really can't spot William Frawley in a classic film without pointing at the screen and saying, "Hey, it's Fred Mertz." Well, I can't at least, and with TCM having aired a ton of baseball oldies just last month, I've bumped into William Frawley much more than usual lately. First I caught It Happened in Flatbush (1942) where Frawley plays Brooklyn Dodgers G.M. Sam Sloan in a film featuring Lloyd Nolan as Frank Maguire, a former Dodgers ballplayer who one time committed a pennant costing gaffe earning him the nickname of Butterfingers. I'm a huge baseball fan which means I usually groan and grimace through most baseball movies--I'll do so here shortly--but It Happened in Flatbush, despite an entirely fictionalized Dodgerdom, was a very pleasant surprise for about an hour before the need of tying up the romance between Nolan and club owner Carole Landis took us off to sports fantasyland.
Off the screen William Frawley was a huge baseball fan in his private life, a big sports fan in general actually, so he enthusiastically took any part coming his way when the film offered a sports background. That led to more than a few clunkers. The best I could tell here's a complete list of the sports films William Frawley appeared in throughout his career:
William Frawley Sports Films
1. Hold 'Em Yale (1935) Baseball
2. Alibi Ike (1935) Baseball
3. Rose Bowl (1936) Football
4. Touchdown, Army (1938) Football
5. Golden Gloves (1940) Boxing
6. It Happened in Flatbush (1942) Baseball
7. Moonlight in Havana (1942) Baseball
8. Gentleman Jim (1942) Boxing
9. The Babe Ruth Story (1948) Baseball
10. Joe Palooka in Winner Take All (1948) Boxing
11. Kill the Umpire (1950) Baseball
12. Rhubarb (1951) Baseball
13. Safe at Home (1962) Baseball
Some of those titles alone make me shiver, but Alibi Ike was yet another pleasant surprise and definitely the most I ever found myself enjoying Joe E. Brown! The film is also notable as the first film released to feature Olivia De Havilland, just 19 years old when you see her here. Frawley gets a decent amount of screen time in Alibi Ike as Cap, manager of the Chicago Cubs, a go nowhere club at the time which had just dumped it's only good player but is saved by a rookie pitcher, Frank X. Farrell (Brown), enjoying a breakout season. Farrell, who makes excuses for everything, is dubbed Alibi Ike by Cap and his Cubbie teammates. Ruth Donnelly plays Frawley's wife in the film, with De Havilland playing her sister and Brown's love interest.
I can't believe this but I'm pretty sure I just watched The Babe Ruth Story for the first time this week. Perhaps it was years of my father warning me about it, perhaps the Babe was just too familiar, I don't know how it had slipped by my honestly, but after watching it I know I definitely would have remembered it had I previously seen it! Far from the pleasant surprise I label It Happened in Brooklyn and Alibi Ike, I'm shocked to say that I'd be hard-pressed to name a film I disliked more than The Babe Ruth Story. Ever. It does enter that so bad it's good territory, but that was only after I became so exasperated that my teeth grinding gave way to hysterical laughter.
Poor quality aside, I watched The Babe Ruth Story for William Frawley and as expected it was but a very brief appearance as Jack Dunn, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles minor league club that the Bambino stopped over with in between his time at St. Mary's and joining the Boston Red Sox. Frawley shows up in a long fur coat, watches William Bendix perform some of his Babe Ruth superhero act, and then ushers the Babe onto a train with the rest of the Orioles club. What follows is the same exact scene Joe E. Brown played in Alibi Ike: the other players convince the gullible Babe to rest his arm in the pitcher's sling provided by the railroad (actually some netting inside the sleeper car that I'd imagine is meant to hold a passenger's belongings) and the Babe wakes up the next day to an irate Frawley. Exactly like Joe E. Brown did, except that Brown did it first and funnier.
I didn't get to catch Safe at Home (1962) but it's another flop best known for featuring real life New York Yankees Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. It's notable as Frawley's last film of any type, though he continued to work in television for a few more years.
William Frawley sounds like a heck of a guy so far, big sports fan, the love of the game so deep within in him that he did his best to bring that across on screen, no matter how terrible the project might be. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but the two best sources I could find about Frawley agreed that he was a miserable S.O.B. Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg in Meet the Mertzes from Renaissance Books and Michael Bernal in his detailed piece inside the September 2000 issue of Classic Images Magazine, both manage to compare Frawley to Archie Bunker at some point in their writing.
The impression I got was a Made for HBO version of Fred Mertz. He's a cranky old guy, tough to get along with, with a truckdriver's mouth who also threw around racial slurs enough to be remembered for doing so. In Meet the Mertzes former I Love Lucy writer Bob Schiller refers to Frawley as "not politically correct" (41) and says, "He was really a character out of the 1920's ... when men were men who would drink a lot and have very little to do with women outside of sex (39). Yup, Frawley wasn't a fan of women either and by all accounts drank to great excess, so much so that he was becoming a tough hire just prior to landing the part of Fred Mertz. In Classic Images Bernal writes "He was considered hard to work with, and his drinking problem gave him a bad reputation within the film community" (13). Both writers seem to agree that the otherwise seemingly miserable Frawley's "bark was worse than his bite" though as Bernal wrote.
The irascible Frawley was one time fired from a Broadway show for punching Clifton Webb in the face. I don't mean to make William Frawley sound like Godzilla when I repeat these items. Certainly Frawley wasn't the only guy in show biz who drank too much or was a racist and likely a misogynist on top. The problem is that in Frawley's case the charges are repeated as his main personality traits and so he becomes even more unpleasant than just a casual mention would have managed. A casual mention would have been casually mentioned here, instead this is my third paragraph about what a jerk Bill Frawley was, maybe because I'm just so surprised myself. Acknowledging his many faults Bernal does finally add that "he could be a warm, wonderful, hearty old Irishman with a great sense of humor," when he found himself with a crowd he liked. Doesn't sound like the usual mood.
William Clement Frawley was born of Irish roots, February 26, 1887 in Burlington, Iowa. He was pegged to work for the railroad and had some early jobs along those lines, but despite his mother's protests the pull of the stage repeatedly overtook him. While the exact circumstances of his discovery appear to be lost to time, one of Frawley's stories was that he was discovered with some friends in a cafe on Chicago's South Side singing some old railroad songs. Yes, it was Frawley's Irish tenor voice which would be the first tool he'd use to entertain and it landed him a job in the chorus of The Flirting Princess at the LaSalle Theater in Chicago in, by the best I could tell, 1907.
Note: It's unsubstantiated, but Frawley later claimed to be the one to introduce both of the songs My Melancholy Baby and Carolina in the Morning. Authors from both sources doubt this claim, but do agree that he was very probably among the first to sing either tune.
From there he and his brother Paul, who actually garnered more initial fame than Bill on Broadway, formed a vaudeville act, not surprisingly billed as "The Frawley Brothers." They tried the act out in East St. Louis before heading back to Iowa. William Frawley would next head out on his own and spend a year as a singer-comedian at the Rex Cafe in Denver. A new partnership was formed in San Francisco with Franz Rath, a piano player, with whom Frawley toured the Pacific Coast and Western U.S. in an act dubbed "A Man, A Piano and a Nut."
After a split with Rath, Frawley, yes, our same woman-hater supreme, married Edna Louise Broedt in 1914. Partnering with his wife in act called "Frawley and Louise" they'd sing and dance and play comedy with Edna as the straight-man, making it as far as the Palace Theater in New York in 1915. Back West in 1916, Frawley made his film debut for the American Film Manufacturing Company in Lord Loveland Discovers America and was cast with his wife later that same year in Persistent Percival produced by that same company. Frawley and Louise separated in 1921, their divorce becoming official in December 1927.
Shortly after the separation Frawley headed back to New York and would become a Broadway regular in musical comedies beginning in 1923. It doesn't appear as though Frawley appeared in any hits throughout the decade, but he did work his way up to handling a few leads by the late 1920's and in 1932 played in the supporting role of Owen O'Malley in original George Abbot production of the hit Twentieth Century (Roscoe Karns plays the part in the film). Not unusual in this time period when the talkies were still establishing themselves out West, Hollywood came a calling with MGM offering Frawley a contract that his temper would cost him out West. According to Bernal an MGM exec made a comment about Frawley's hair, or lack thereof, causing Frawley to storm out of their offices without signing.
Soon after the MGM blowout he'd land an interview with Paramount which turned into the standard seven-year contract. From there Frawley was set as a Hollywood regular but often found himself cast in a lot of lousy assignments. Like many character actors of his time some gems slipped in: The Princess Comes Across (1936), The General Died at Dawn (1936), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), Rose of Washington Square (1939), and more, but the flops and more often the bombs which never had a shot at success certainly overwhelmed the classics on Frawley's resume. And like many character actors it was small to tiny parts in A level productions with the better roles coming in much cheaper productions.
But you'll still see him, and I tell you, even if I Love Lucy or My Three Sons never happened I think we classic film fans would still have a certain special spot for William Frawley. His appearance was all his own, in other words, you wouldn't likely mix him up with another similar actor, and while there are many fine character actors who did gruff, Frawley was a master crank, on screen and apparently off as well.
William Frawley died in Hollywood, March 3, 1966, age 79.
Best Known Films Featuring William Frawley
This is the IMDb's Top 10 Frawley films by vote. Not by popularity, just by number of voters, which gives a pretty good idea of what's being viewed most often.
1. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
2. Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
3. Going My Way (1944)
4. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
5. Rancho Notorious (1952)
6. Gentleman Jim (1942)
7. The Fighting Seabees (1944)
8. The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)
9. Ziegfeld Follies (1945)
10. Roberta (1935)
And 10 is a pretty good place to stop for Frawley as the voting takes a pretty big drop to number 11, One Night in the Tropics (1940). Now these rankings are potentially in constant flux, but they actually tend to remain pretty stable. Basically the only way anything new is breaking into this listing is if a classic receives a fresh DVD release and is exposed to a new mass viewership.
No, Frawley hasn't had too much to drink in the shots above, they make up what is at least a seven photo series of Promotional shots for Paramount's St. Louis Blues. Each of the studio issued images is numbered 1-7 on the back with a brief caption and a Paramount photographer's stamp crediting Don English. They're placed on this page in the order they're numbered, the captions are as follows:
1. Bill Frawley rests comfortably knowing that he has just completed his most important most difficult scene with Lloyd Nolan, Dorothy Lamour and Jessie Ralph in Paramount's "St. Louis Blues." Tomorrow's day will be fairly easy and consequently Frawley oversleeps and will have to rush to the studio.
2. Bill get sup at 8:50 a.m. and smacks right into his none-too-soft bedroom wall.
3. After a hasty shower, Bill's shoe string breaks as the clock ticks 8:55 a.m.
4. A quick drink of coffee and a glance at the morning paper reveals that the Giants lost to Pittsburgh and it appears as if they are out of the running. To make matters worse, in his hast, Bill spills coffee on his shirt.
5. In his hurry to reach his car, Bill trips on his "Welcome" mat and slides down a few stairs.
6. At 9:00 sharp, he reaches his car only to find a flat tire.
7. "But officer, I'm a friend of the President." "Tell it to the Judge and show him those phoney cards" replies the officer who has stopped Bill for speeding.
That was a really interesting reading! I only knew that Vivian Vance didn’t get along with him, now I can see why. Anyway, he was great in I love Lucy 🙂
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks, Clara! Yes, it’s amazing how well he and Vance worked together when they had such a strong distaste for one another.
Having grown up on Lucy re-runs in the 70s and 80s I find it amazing that someone so well known throughout my entire life for that one part had had such a varied and busy career for so many years before playing the role that we all associate him with today.
This is a great article. Despite his gruff tendencies, I’ve found that most people recall Frawley relatively fondly. Vivian Vance aside, both Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball always spoke nicely of him. After signing him to star in I Love Lucy, despite network objections that he could be a liability due to his alcoholism, Desi made it clear that he’d be terminated if he showed up drunk or was late to a rehearsal. Never once in the nine years they worked together was Frawley ever late.
All three of the sons from My Three Sons also have great memories of Bill. They remember a guy who acted as a surrogate grandfather and showered them with gifts on birthdays and special occasions. One of them tells a cute story of a very old Bill Frawley going into LA’s young, hip surf shops to find the top of the line surf board he wanted for his birthday. Fred MacMurray obviously thought fondly of him too, as he was a pallbearer at the funeral.
There’s many great stories about Frawley’s legendary temper, drinking and foul mouth. However, it’s just nice to remember that many people thought he was a relatively harmless old man who got easily riled up. And one who hated Vivian Vance (she did cost him a lot of money by refusing to do an I Love Lucy spinoff featuring the Mertzes). Tim Considine tells a great story about his Sergeant in the Army coming to visit him on the set of My Three Sons and what happened when the Sergeant made the mistake of asking Bill about her.
For as much as you make of his misogynist tendencies (of which there were many) he developed a sweet, loving relationship (albeit probably platonic) with actress Patricia Barry (who was a recurring guest star on My Three Sons). They had a deep relationship and he wound up leaving most of his estate to her when he died.
One of the more interesting tidbits about his death, was that Frawley collapsed and died at the corner of Hollywood Blvd and Ivar St, half a block from the Knickerbocker Hotel (incorrectly reported in Meet the Mertzes as the Roosevelt Hotel – one of several errors in that book). However, what’s interesting is that Frawley had lived in the Knickerbocker for close to forty years. A lifelong bachelor (save his brief marriage and the time sharing his suite with his sister), he used to go to the lobby bar nightly to have them put a cracked walnut in his martini. Several months before dying, he moved to the El Royale Apartments a mile south, but oddly it was in front of his old home that he collapsed and died. He went home to die, it seems.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks for the contribution, Justin! Frawley seemed like the least Hollywood movie star I’d ever read about; felt like he was just a talented guy from the neighborhood who made a living in showbiz. Definitely got the idea that both Lucy and Desi had a big soft spot for him, but probably were constantly on edge not knowing what to expect from him next. I saw that item about Vance costing him by not doing the spin-off, but that definitely seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back as it seemed as though they pretty much despised each other all throughout I Love Lucy’s run! I didn’t know that about Patricia Barry and I’d love to hear that Tim Considine story though it sounds salty enough where it’d probably be best to email me if you’d care to tell it!
Shelley Thompson says
I want to hear the story, too!
Slim Pickens says
This is a classic quote from William Frawley…I made a few pictures, a couple good ones, I took the money and ran