10/10/20: Two Guys Named Bill

By Fred Muenz

Born in Burlington, Iowa in February, 1887, William Clement Frawley was raised in a deeply religious family, dominated by a strong-willed mother. Possessed of a beautiful voice, Bill sang in his church choir and, as he grew up, began taking small parts in local community theater productions, despite the disapproval of his mother. After graduating from high school, he worked at an office job with a railroad for several years before moving to Chicago to work as a court reporter. Not long after arriving in Chicago, however, he took a singing role in a musical comedy staged by a local theater group. His mother was outraged, and to appease her he moved to St. Louis and another railroad job. Feeling unfulfilled at that job and unable to resist his desire to be on the stage, he created a vaudeville act, first with his younger brother, Paul (mother put an end to that), and finally with a succession of partners. During his vaudeville career, he introduced the classic songs “My Mammy”, My Melancholy Baby” and “Carolina In The Morning”. By 1925, he was appearing on Broadway in musical comedy and dramatic roles. Although he had appeared in several silent films as early as 1916, it wasn’t until 1933 that he finally moved to Hollywood and signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. By 1951, the now 64-year-old veteran character actor, with more than 100 films to his credit, was looking for new opportunities. Hearing that Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were casting for I Love Lucy, he called and asked for an audition. Known for his drinking, he was offered the role of neighbor, Fred Mertz, on condition that he never arrive on set late, or drunk. Throughout the entire run of I Love Lucy, he arrived on time, sober and knowing his lines. A rabid New York Yankees fan, his contract allowed him to take off on days when the Yankees were playing in the World Series. His on-screen wife, Vivian Vance was upset that she had to play the role of wife to a man 22 years her senior. She disliked Bill so much that she refused to appear with him in a Fred and Ethel spin-off. Offended when he overheard her complaining about him, he never forgave her. During the run of I Love Lucy, William Frawley was nominated for five consecutive Emmy’s. In 1960, Bill joined the cast of My Three Sons, as grandfather/housekeeper, William Michael Francis ”Bub” O’Casey. Originally cast as the lead, his character was relegated to a supporting role when Fred MacMurray was hired. Uncomfortable with the out-of-sequence filming and in declining health, he left the show after five seasons and retired from show business. On March 3, 1966, five days after his 79th birthday, William Frawley collapsed and died of a heart attack, while walking on Hollywood Boulevard.

When Bill Frawley left My Three Sons, he was replaced by another veteran character actor, William Demarest, playing the same role, now named Uncle Charley. He was explained to be grandfather, “Bub” O’Casey’s brother, Charlie.

Born in February, 1892, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and raised in New Jersey, Carl William Demarest grew up believing that he would one day be a performer. In 1905, he joined his two older brothers in a short-lived vaudeville act. A tough young man, after performing for a while he decided to try his hand at professional prize fighting. His boxing career was interrupted by World War I service in the U.S. Army. Upon returning from the war, he and his new wife, Estelle, created a new vaudeville act, and went on the road as “Demarest and Collette”, before moving on to success on Broadway and finally Hollywood. Once in Hollywood, he became friendly with writer/director Preston Sturges, and joined a troupe of actors which Sturges regularly cast in his films. Among the 134 films in which he appeared, were THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), with Al Jolson, THE JOLSON STORY (1946), which brought him an Academy Award nomination, and JOLSON SINGS AGAIN (1949), staring Larry Parks. Bill Demarest was the only performer to appear in all three films (Jolson and Larry Parks each appeared in only two). Transitioning into television, in 1957 he began a four-year run playing Mr. Daly in Make Room For Daddy, starring Danny Thomas. Two other TV series followed until 1965, when he joined the cast of My Three Sons, when Bill Frawley left. A friend of Fred MacMurray, the two of them had appeared in several films together. When the show ended in 1972, he retired, passing away in December, 1983, at age 91, after a long battle with prostate cancer.

ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.

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