William Frawley and his brother were entertainers who came from a family that disapproved of show business. While his brother gave up entertaining and went back home, Bill stayed on the road. He moved around a lot in the early days, taking jobs as a singer and as a comedian. Eventually he made his way to the east coast where he found more legitimate stage work.
He also found opportunities to make silent films. However, he was not too interested in a cinematic career in those days, and he continued to focus on his musical comedy routines. He married, and his wife joined him in the act; this continued until their divorce. When sound films came in, Bill had the chance to appear on screen again, and he did a few short films. This led to his being offered a seven-year contract with Paramount in 1933.
At Paramount he became one of the studio’s go-to character actors. He was utilized in practically every genre, working with the studio’s top directors and stars. One of the stars he worked with on the Paramount lot in the 30s was Fred MacMurray. They appeared together in the comedy THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS and in the action flick CAR 99. At the time they had no idea they would become television costars 25 years later. But a friendship was formed, and of course, it was a lasting one.
Bill also became friends with Lucille Ball when she was under contract at MGM in the mid-40s. Both of them appeared in the Technicolor musical ZIEGFELD’S FOLLIES, though they were featured in separate sequences. In the early 50s, Bill’s movie career was in decline. By that point he had done over 100 screen roles, including a well-regarded turn in the holiday classic MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, as well as Chaplin’s MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Realizing he needed to turn to television to stay employed, he learned that Lucy and her husband Desi were looking for a dependable actor to play the role of a tough but lovable landlord on their new sitcom.
Of course, this led to Bill’s role as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. The show ran for six seasons (in the half-hour version), plus there were three additional seasons of specials (in a one-hour format). He was nominated several times for an Emmy for his performances. In 1960 he signed on to play the cook and all around caregiver Bub on MacMurray’s sitcom My Three Sons. It had a different production model than the Ball-Arnaz programs, but it was a hit and Bill had a lot of fun doing it.
- the princess comes across (1937); paramount; comedy; fred macmurray; 76 mins.
- something to sing about (1937); grand national; musical; james cagney; 93 mins.
- mad about music (1938); universal; musical; deanna durbin; 100 mins.
- st. louis blues (1939); paramount; musical; dorothy lamour; 92 mins.
- the adventures of huckleberry finn (1939); mgm; adventure; mickey rooney; 92 mins.
- the bride came c.o.d. (1941); warner brothers; comedy; james cagney; 92 mins.
- ziegfeld follies (1946); mgm; musical; fanny brice; 110 mins.
- monsieur verdoux (1947); ua; crime; charlie chaplin; 124 mins.
- miracle on 34th street (1947); fox; fantasy; maureen o’hara; 96 mins.
- kill the umpire (1950); columbia; comedy; william bendix; 78 mins.