This blonde soprano and dramatic stage player took a sharp career turn in mid-stream to become one of TV's best-loved second bananas. Vivian Vance's long-term stint supporting Lucille Ball earned her fame and honed her skills as a great comic.
The Kansas-born Vance was trained as a lyric soprano, and got her start at a community playhouse in Albuquerque, NM. She was only 19 when she made her Broadway debut in the Hammerstein and Kern operetta "Music in the Air" (1932-1933). But Vance's stage career never really got off the ground.
She had a small role in the comedy "Kiss the Boys Goodbye" (1938), touring with the show in the early 1940s. Her film career also struggled; after her debut in the Bob Hope/Betty Hutton comedy "Let's Face It" (1943), she made only three more films. These consisted of small roles in Mel Ferrer's whodunit "The Secret Fury" (1950), the melodrama "The Blue Veil" (1951) and, after her fame, the frenetic comedy "The Great Race" (1965), as Arthur O'Connell's suffragette wife.
Vance was appearing as a prostitute in a La Jolla production of "The Voice of the Turtle" in 1951 when director Marc Daniels pegged her for the role of Lucille Ball's sidekick in the upcoming series "I Love Lucy" when radio comic Bea Benaderet became unavailable to play landlady Ethel Mertz. Neither Ball nor Vance were thrilled with the idea: Vance wanted to pursue film work, and Ball wanted someone older and less attractive than herself (Vance was two years younger than the 40-year-old star). Nonetheless, she was signed and, after a rough start, became lifelong friends with Ball.
Vance played Lucy Ricardo's sounding board, cohort and sometime adversary in the hugely popular "I Love Lucy" from 1951-1957. With her wry cynicism and down-to-earth personality, she stood in for viewers, getting sucked into Lucy's "hare-brained schemes." Besides developing her own remarkable skills as a comic actress, Vance was often the peace-maker and problem-solver on the set. Her mercurial co-stars Ball, Desi Arnaz and, particularly, William Frawley (the gruff, much older actor who played her husband), often needed her calming influence.
Vance next re-joined her "Lucy" co-stars on the "Desilu Playhouse" series "The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show" (CBS, 1958-60). By the time Ball began shooting "The Lucy Show" (CBS, 1962-68), Vance was living in Connecticut with her second husband, publisher John Dodds. She agreed to co-star once again, provided that her character be named "Vivian" (not "Ethel") and that she was allowed to dress as attractively as Ball. On "I Love Lucy", Vance had to wear frumpy clothes and make-up (though she was not, as often rumored, forced to weigh 20 pounds more than Ball). By 1965, Vance tired of the commute (she lived with Ball in Los Angeles while shooting) and her role was curtailed to guest spots for the rest of the show's run.
"The Lucy Show" was Vance's last sitcom; she did the occasional guest spot and made some TV movies: supporting roles in "The Front Page" (ABC, 1970), the rural comedy "Getting Away from It All" (ABC, 1972) and the biopic "The Great Houdini" (ABC, 1976). Vance was last seen on a reunion, "The Lucille Ball Special" (CBS, 1977), two years before her death.