Vivian Vance: Remembering Lucille Ball’s ‘I Love Lucy’ Sidekick 40 Years After Her Death

The beloved sitcom star died on Aug. 17, 1979.

Photo from the November 1955 episode of I Love Lucy, "Face to Face".
CBS Television / Wikimedia Commons

The beloved sitcom star died on Aug. 17, 1979.

Vivian Vance died 40 years ago, on Aug. 17, 1979. The beloved actress passed away following a cancer battle. While obituaries at the time listed Vance at age 66 when she died, more recently her birthdate has been listed as July 26, 1909, which would have made her 70.

The actress, born in Cherryvale, Kansas, was best known for her work on the 1950s CBS sitcom, I Love Lucy, alongside Lucille Ball. The co-stars became one of the most iconic comedy duos in television history. But Vance was also a stage and movie actress who logged acting credits on The Deputy, Guestward Ho!, The Red Skelton Hour, Love American Style, Rhoda, and more, according to IMDB.

After a long run as Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy (1951-58), Vance reunited with Ball multiple times for subsequent TV shows, including The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, and The Lucy Show, which aired from 1962-68 on CBS and featured the two friends as single moms. According to MeTV, Ball only wanted to do The Lucy Show with Vivian Vance by her side. Vance ultimately signed on to the show under the condition that her character on the series would be named “Vivian” because she was tired of fans calling her “Ethel” in public. Ball’s character was named Lucy on the show.

Vance later appeared on Here’s Lucy, although she was no longer Ball’s sidekick. Her penultimate TV appearance was as Lucy’s foil in the 1977 CBS special, The President Visits Lucy. Vance’s final acting appearance came in the Mark Harmon police dog series Sam in 1978.

After Vivian Vance’s death in 1979, Lucille Ball described her as the best friend she ever had.

“I have lost the best friend I ever had. And the world has lost one of the best performers it ever had. I shall miss her terribly,” the I Love Lucy star said, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Indeed, Ball reportedly had nothing but adoration for Vance after handpicking her for the role of Ethel Mertz after watching her perform in a play, “The Voice of the Turtle,” at the La Jolla Playhouse in the early 1950s.

In an interview posted by Fox News, Tom Johnson, co-author of the book Hollywood Heyday, revealed that Lucy “thought the world of Vivian.”

While the two sometimes had artistic differences — Vance didn’t love being known as the “frumpier,” older friend on I Love Lucy— her only real beef was with William Frawley, the actor who played her on-screen husband Fred Mertz. Vance reportedly didn’t like being linked to Frawley, who was 22 years her senior.

“They were at each other all the time,” Johnson confirmed.

Loading...

Johnson added that Vivian was one of the few performers who could actually give Lucille “a real belly laugh.”

“She genuinely thought Vivian Vance was a crackup. She loved her. Probably second only to Dean Martin as someone who could make her laugh.”

While Vivian Vance was known for her comedic chops, her personal life was complicated. A string of bad marriages (Vance was divorced three times) and the rigors of her acting career brought the star to the point of a breakdown. Vance was an avid mental health advocate who served on the board of the National Mental Health Association. She was married to publisher John Dodds at the time of her death.