'I Love Lucy': Ethel and Lucy's Friendship Is Not What It Seems

I Love Lucy is one of the most beloved shows in the history of television. Not only did it make a superstar out of B-list movie actor Lucille Ball, but it introduced characters like Lucy and Ricky Ricardo into pop culture, creating a unique fan base that exists to this very day.

More than 60 years after I Love Lucy went off the air, fans have a better understanding of the culture and history that went into building the show — and learning more than ever about how the actors were able to bring their characters to life, often using extremely subtle references and in-jokes. 

When did ‘I Love Lucy’ run on television?

I Love Lucy premiered on television in 1951. The show starred Lucille Ball, as well as her real-life husband Desi Arnaz, as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. Lucy, a dissatisfied housewife, was constantly looking for ways to break into show-business, usually through her husband, who worked as a bandleader at a popular nightclub. The show was based loosely on Ball and Arnaz’s real lives as an actress and musician, and fans quickly gravitated to the outrageous humor and situations featured in I Love Lucy.

I Love Lucy eventually became the most-watched TV show in the United States, earning rave reviews from critics and fans around the world. It has remained in almost constant syndication since the day that it premiered, and even though it went off the air in 1957, many pop culture fans still look to I Love Lucy as the gold standard in television comedy. 

Vivian Vance played Ethel Mertz in ‘I Love Lucy’

In addition to Ball and Arnaz as the lead performers in I Love Lucy, the cast included talented character actors Vivian Vance and William Frawley as Ethel and Fred Mertz, an older couple who had a friendship with the Ricardos. In particular, Ethel and Lucy were partners in crime, going on a variety of exciting adventures and escapades together, often to the consternation of their husbands.

Vance had worked in stage shows before getting cast as Ethel, and she became so closely associated with the role of Lucy’s best friend, that even after I Love Lucy went off the air, she co-starred with Lucille Ball in several other television projects, always to the delight of viewers. 

How did Lucy ‘rescue’ Ethel from her boring marriage?

While Ball was ostensibly the star of I Love Lucy, it is impossible to overestimate what Vance brought to the show. She brought a level of nuance to the character of Ethel that succeeding generations have grown to understand and appreciate.

But according to one I Love Lucy expert and historian, Lucy and Ethel’s friendship is not what it seems. In fact, the foundation of their relationship may have less to do with friendship and more to do with Ethel’s marriage.

“With Vivian, which is what a great actor does, every word that came out of her mouth, you really believed she was saying it for the first time,” said historian Geoffrey Mark to Closer Weekly. “And when Ethel talked about her dissatisfaction with her husband, you could almost imagine what life must’ve been like for her without Lucy and Ricky making it more pleasant.”

Mark dissected the relationship between Ethel and Lucy, detailing how “that’s why [Ethel is] always in [the Ricardo’s] apartment, trying to get away from Fred.” He says: “And you didn’t even have to have the episodes written to show it; you just knew from the way she said her lines and her body language. But it was the perfect storm of great writing, great directing and great acting. Vivian conveyed how much she loved Lucy. Ethel adored Lucy so much, because Lucy rescued her from a dull, unhappy life.”

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