Vivian Vance, the Ethel Mertz of I Love Lucy and one of the most beloved comediennes in television, died Friday at her home in northern California after a long fight against cancer. She was 66.
She costarred with Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and the late William Frawley for seven years (1951-58) in the landmark TV comedy I Love Lucy, the most popular program in television history, and later costarred with Miss Ball and Gale Gordon for six years (1962-68) in a sequel, The Lucy Show, both for CBS. She made her final appearance as Lucy’s foil in a 1977 CBS special, “The President Visits Lucy.”
Though her television image was of a bubble-headed matron consistently led into bizarre situations by her wacky red-headed friend and neighbor Lucy, Miss Vance was a woman of wide-ranging intellectual interests and enthusiasms, whose literary judgement was highly regarded by her husband, publisher John Dodds. She was a tireless worker for mental health and had served on the board of the National Mental Health Assn. and had been active in other philanthropic and civic organizations.
She was born in Cherryvale, Kan., but her family moved to Albuquerque when she was in her teens and she had a lifelong love for New Mexico. She made her home in Santa Fe for many years.
Her flair for dramatics first surfaced in Kansas and, for a time, she studied with William Inge, long before he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Her early work with the Albuquerque Little Theater was of such quality that a benefit performance was held to send her to Broadway. However, instead of doing Shakespeare, as she had planned, she wound up in the chorus of the Oscar Hammerstein-Jerome Kern musical, “Music in the Air.”
Other musicals followed. She understudied Ethel Merman in “Anything Goes” and she often complained: “Just my luck. Ethel Merman never missed a performance for five years!” Featured roles on Broadway followed with Ed Wynn in “Hooray for What!” and with Philip Ober in “Kiss the Boys Goodbye.” She and Ober were married in 1941 and a decade later celebrated their 10th anniversary by costarring in a play in Santa Fe. They were divorced in 1959.
Miss Vance was featured with Danny Kaye in “Let’s Face It” for 86 weeks on Broadway and left the play to do the comedy “Over 21” in North Africa, the first legitimate stage production to play the combat zones of World War II. She was on tour playing Olive Lashbrook in “The Voice of the Turtle” after the war when a nervous breakdown almost ended her career.
She later said she was advised after treatment to return to the stage in a part she knew. In the summer of 1951, Mel Ferrer had scheduled a production of “The Voice of the Turtle” at the La Jolla Playhouse and she joined the company. Arnaz and Miss Ball saw her on stage and said to each other: “There’s our Ethel.”
Miss Ball said Friday: “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.”
After her marriage to Dodds in 1961, Miss Vance lived in and around New York and commuted here for The Lucy Show. When its long run ended, she regularly toured in summer theater, regularly appeared on Candid Camera and did television game shows. In recent years, she appeared in a television commercial. She and her husband moved to Belvedere on San Francisco Bay five years ago.
In addition to her husband, Miss Vance leaves four sisters. Services will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the National Mental Health Assn. or to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.