The Truth About Lucille Ball And Vivian Vance's Friendship

Lucy and Ethel were the first of television's best girlfriends, making audiences laugh long after "I Love Lucy" left the airwaves. In real life, it was a friendship that lasted decades, and what you saw on-screen often echoed what was happening off-screen. 

Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance met when their legendary sitcom began, and a lifelong friendship was born.

Who can forget the zany antics of Lucy and Ethel as they got jobs at a chocolate factory and ate an abundance of candies just to keep up with the conveyor belt? And who can forget how they were always with each other through thick and thin, no matter the trouble they got into while trying to make Lucy a star? 

Luch and Ethel truly exemplify what friendship is all about, and that early television magic happened because the two actors behind the beloved characters hit it off from day one.

How Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance's friendship all began

In 1948, Lucille Ball starred in a CBS radio sitcom "My Favorite Husband." When the network wanted Ball to star in a television version of the same series, it eventually morphed into "I Love Lucy," and Ball insisted that her own husband, Desi Arnaz, play her TV husband (via Vulture). 

By 1951, Ball and Arnaz began looking for performers to play their two best friends, a couple named Fred and Ethel Mertz who owned the Manhattan building that Lucy and Ricky Ricardo live in.

That's when Ball met Vivian Vance, a former theater actor who had appeared in a few movies without yet finding her fortune and fame (via The Famous People). Ball recalled in her autobiography, "Love, Lucy," how she and Vance felt like friends almost immediately.

"As far as I was concerned, it was Kismet," she wrote (via Showbiz CheatSheet). "Viv and I were extraordinarily compatible. We both believe wholeheartedly in what we call 'an enchanted sense of play,' and use it liberally in our show."

The women went through hard times but stuck together

Toward the end of the series' run, both Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance made personal decisions that mirrored each other. Ball decided to divorce Desi Arnaz, whom she had been married to for 20 years, and Vance chose to end her 20-year marriage, too.

"I had lost my good humor and sense of proportion," Ball wrote in her memoir (via Showbiz CheatSheet). "I decided to divorce Desi. During this period, Vivian Vance was getting her divorce from Phil Ober, and she was upset and miserable, too."

She added: "Vivian and I have always been extraordinarily compatible, so we were especially close during this time of misery. Occasionally, however, our tempers grew short; this was a very rough spell for all of us."

Ball also described a battle between the two women that left them not speaking for a few days, but the stalemate ended before taping "I Love Lucy" in front of a live audience. 

"We sat side by side, putting on our makeup. Although not a word had been spoken, I suddenly blurted out, 'Vivian, you know that line' — I repeated it — 'You're not reading it right. It should be...' And I gave her my interpretation."

Vance then asked why she hadn't mentioned this before. "'Well ... we weren't speaking, and I'd be damned if I'd tell you!' Our eyes met in the mirror and we collapsed into laughter," Ball recalled (via Showbiz CheatSheet). "We could never stay cross with each other for very long."

Lucille Ball was there for Vivian Vance until the end

After "I Love Lucy" ended in 1957, the four main performers still appeared together on "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour" until 1960. After that, Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance's friendship remained strong for nearly another two decades.

When Vance was dying from bone cancer in 1979, Ball visited her old co-star and partner-in-slapstick-crime to say her goodbyes. In 2020, author Paige Peterson, who was a friend of Vance's and was there for her final meeting with Ball, told People how the two bid each other farewell. 

"You could hear them laughing, and towards the end there was a lot of sobbing," Peterson said. "It was an amazing thing to witness. The love of these two women ... We had brought Viv down and she was lying on the couch in the living room. They ate lunch and they talked and talked. Viv knew she was dying."

Peterson then relayed what she saw when Ball left. "The pain on her face shook me to my core. She was in tears. She couldn't speak. I think Viv gave up after that." 

Vance died only a few days later, on Aug. 17, 1979. Ball went on to live another 10 years and died on April 26, 1989, from a ruptured aorta after open-heart surgery (via Biography).

Their relationship is explored in the new movie Being the Ricardos with Nicole Kidman

The relationship between Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance became more familiar to modern audiences via the film "Being the Ricardos," starring Nicole Kidman as Ball and Nina Arianda as Vance. It quickly became an Amazon Prime hit.  

While the two women were friends until the end, that doesn't mean there wasn't tension on the "I Love Lucy" set as Ball insisted that the best way for Ethel to be relatable to audiences was to be frumpy and a bit overweight.

So, when former dancer Vance dropped some weight suddenly, as portrayed in the film, Ball was not happy at all. According to Variety, the two women hash out the weight subject during a memorable fight scene in the movie, with Vance accusing Ball of not wanting any competition in the trim-waistline department.

When speaking with Variety, Arianda maintained that she and Kidman were determined to show the love between the two women in that scene, despite the animosity they felt at that moment. 

"These were two people that were best friends and begging to be seen by one another," Arianda explained. "Lucy is saying, 'You have to understand, this is my job, I know what people want.' Vivian is saying, 'You have to let me be me, even a little bit. I'm losing it.' It's all coming from love."

And, in the end, that was the constant throughout Ball and Vance's friendship: It all came from love.