William Frawley was born on February 26, 1887 in Burlington, Iowa. As his uncle remembers, "Bill had a head of golden curls. His mother prided in showing them off, but as Bill grew up he wanted them cut, as his playmates called him a 'sissy.' " As he was growing up, Bill sang with the St. Paul's Catholic Church choir, played bit roles at the Burlington Opera House, and performed in amateur shows at the Garrick Theater.
William's mother was a deeply religious woman and frowned on her son's show business aspirations. She wanted him to work as a stenographer for the Union Pacific Railroad. He took the job for a while, as a co-worker remembers, "Bill would walk into the office every morning dressed in a brown derby hat with white eyelets, a shepherd plaid suit, and spats. He looked as though he'd break into a song and dance any minute. While he worked, he'd be humming and singing the latest ragtime tunes and Irish songs." Bill, by the way, had a lovely Irish tenor voice.
As he arrived in Chicago, he, without mom's permission, landed a spot in the chorus of The Flirting Princess. Mrs. Frawley once sent Bill a note which prompted him to move to St. Louis to work for another railroad. The note said that she'd rather plant flowers on his grave than see him on the stage. With performing in his blood, he couldn't resist and formed a vaudeville act with his younger brother, Paul. Six months later, Mrs. Frawley ordered Paul back home, so Bill went west. He got his first real solo professional engagement in Denver. He was hired as a singer at the Rex Cafe for twenty-three dollars a week. After building up a strong reputation in Denver, Bill teamed with pianist Franz Rath and headed to San Fransisco with their act, "A Man, a Piano, and a Nut." During this four year job, Bill introduced the song "My Melancholy Baby."
He formed a new act in 1914 with his new wife, Edna Louise Broedt, and called it "Frawley and Louise." Listed among "the great comedy acts of vaudeville" in the book Vaudeville, Frawley and Louise was described as "light comedy, with singing, dancing, and patter." They played the Orpheum and Keith circuits until their divorce in 1927.
Soon, Bill moved on to Broadway and appeared in such shows as Here's Howe!, Bye, Bye Bonnie, The Gingham Girl, Sons o' Guns, and She's My Baby (with Bea Lillie, Clifton Webb, and Irene Dunne.) His first dramatic role was that of press agent Ward O'Malley in a 1932 production of Twentieth Century at the Broadhurst Theater. Another big role in The Ghost Writer in New York and then off to Hollywood for a seven-year contract with Paramount.
Bill had appeared in over one-hundred films by 1951. His face was familiar and was an added plus for "I Love Lucy." One evening, Lucille Ball received a phone call from the sixty-four-year-old actor, "I'm wondering if there's a role for me in your TV show."
Surprised to hear from a man she knew only barely from the forties, Lucy responded, "Bill Frawley, how are you?" She agreed to discuss the issue with Desi Arnaz. They agreed that it would be marvelous to have the motion picture veteran of such shows as The Lemon Drop Kid and Miracle on 34th Street appear as Fred Mertz. However, network and agency people warned Desi of Bill's chronic drinking problem and instability. Desi immediately leveled with Bill about CBS's worries. Of course, Bill denied it, but Desi warned him. "If he was late to work, or unable to perform except because of legitimate illness more than once, he'd be written out of the show." And so began the saga that continued until 1960 when "Lucy" went off of prime time.
Although his contract with Desilu didn't run out for two months, Bill accepted an offer to do a show with ABC, "My Three Sons." "Desi was a little irate about my accepting another job while I was under contract to him," Bill once admitted. On "Sons," Bill portrayed Michael Francis O'Casey, more commonly known as "Bub" and was not unlike the character of Fred Mertz.
For five years, Bill continued the "My Three Sons" gig until failing health forced him to retire. On the evening of March 3, 1966 while strolling down Hollywood Blvd. after seeing a movie, Bill collapsed of a heart attack on the corner. He was rushed to nearby Hollywood Receiving Hospital where he was pronounced dead, a week after his seventy-ninth birthday.
As fate would have it, the last time Frawley appeared on video was with Lucy in a segment of "The Lucy Show" on October 25, 1965. Bill once told a reporter, "I've loved her [Lucy] since she was a star-struck kid at RKO. I get along all right with Desi, too."
Lucy commented, "I've lost one of my dearest friends and show business has lost one of the greatest character actors of all time. Those of us who knew him and loved him will miss him."
Desi also showed his sympathy on the day of Bill's funeral at San Fernando Mission Cemetery. Desi paid for an entire page in the Hollywood Reporter. It featured a picture of Frawley along with the dates of his life and the words, "Buenas Noches, Amigo!" (which means, "Good Night, Friend").
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