Lucille Ball (1911–1989) was surely one of the funniest human beings ever to have pratfallen to Earth. She appeared in dozens of B movies during the 1930s and ’40s, only to come into her gut-busting own in the late-1940s radio comedy My Favorite Husband and in the groundbreaking 1950s TV sitcom I Love Lucy. And because her costar husband was clever enough to invent the rerun, we’ve never stopped laughing at—or loving—Lucy.
CBS Radio billed My Favorite Husband as “the gay family comedy series.” The program’s war-of-the-sexes shtick was as innocuous as Jell-O (its sponsor). What gave the confection some comedic bite was the expressive vocal wit of Lucille Ball, who starred as Liz, the daffy, always-scheming wife of George Cooper, played by Richard Denning. When CBS wanted to transfer Husband to television, network execs asked Ball to go along. But Ball insisted that CBS replace Denning with her real-life spouse, Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz, and the network demurred, fearing viewers wouldn’t accept interethnic connubiality.
Undeterred, Ball and Arnaz put together a husband-and-wife vaudeville act and toured the country with it; their stage show’s phenomenal popularity persuaded CBS that it might have misjudged its audience. When I Love Lucy premiered on CBS-TV in October 1951, starring Arnaz as fictional Cuban-born bandleader Ricky Ricardo and Ball as his daffy, always-scheming wife, it was a smash, running for six seasons—nine counting its sequel, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, which aired from 1957 to 1960. (CBS finally brought My Favorite Husband to TV in 1953, with Joan Caulfield and Barry Nelson as Liz and George; it lasted just two and a half seasons.)
When CBS wouldn’t hire Desi Arnaz to play opposite his wife, Lucille Ball, in a television version of the radio program My Favorite Husband, the couple countered by founding their own studio, Desilu Productions, and creating their own comedy series, I Love Lucy. The pairing of a Cuban guy with an all-American (i.e., white) gal broke—or at least lowered—the barrier against portraying “mixed” marriages on TV.
That was hardly the show’s only innovation: When Ball appeared visibly with child (Desi Arnaz Jr.) during the second season, she defied a de facto industry ban on allowing pregnant women on camera. I Love Lucy was also the first TV show to be filmed (as opposed to broadcast live and recorded, if at all, by kinescope) and the first to be shot with multiple cameras; the first sitcom to be performed before a live audience; and the first television program to go into syndicated reruns—made possible by Arnaz’s savvy decision to retain rights to the show following initial broadcast. Desilu’s ingenuity and success extended far beyond I Love Lucy to its association with such beloved television classics as The Andy Griffith Show, Mission: Impossible and the original Star Trek series.
In an especially comical I Love Lucy episode, Lucy (Lucille Ball), returning from a trip to Europe, attempts to smuggle a 25-pound log of French cheese into the U.S. by wrapping it in a blanket, pretending it’s a baby and carrying it aboard the plane. Her scheme misfires, as usual, and at the program’s conclusion Ricky (Desi Arnaz) tells her, “You know, Lucy, being married to you is not easy, but it sure is a lot of fun.”
Offscreen, the Desi-Lucy liaison wasn’t always so amusing. As business partners the couple got on well, with Arnaz handling the financial side of Desilu Productions and Ball making many of the creative decisions. But their marriage—they’d wed in 1940 after meeting on the set of the movie musical Too Many Girls—was rocky from the get-go. Arnaz’s drinking and infidelity drove Ball to sue for divorce as early as 1944; she changed her mind, but the pair finally split in 1960. When Arnaz gave up his shares in Desilu two years later, Ball became the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio. The former couple remained friendly, sharing a loving phone conversation just before Arnaz’s death in 1986.
I Love Lucy was shot in Hollywood, but the fictional Ricardos lived in New York City. Over the years, most of the show’s action occurred in their Manhattan apartment’s living room, but for a change of scene, the show’s writers had Lucy and Ricky—accompanied by their landlord sidekicks, Ethel and Fred Mertz—take several trips, including one to Europe and one to…Hollywood.
The Hollywood shows, which straddled Lucy’s fourth and fifth seasons, gave Lucille Ball the chance to play the starstruck fool with movie-industry luminaries, including an impressive lineup of the era’s top actors (William Holden, Cornel Wilde, Rock Hudson, Van Johnson, Richard Widmark, John Wayne); gossip columnist Hedda Hopper; and comedy great Harpo Marx. The May 9, 1955, episode “Lucy and Harpo Marx” was among the most memorable of the series: Lucy and Harpo brilliantly reenact the pantomimic mirror scene from the Marx Brothers’ 1933 film Duck Soup. As it happens, the I Love Lucy episode wasn’t the first time Ball and Marx had appeared together: Ball had a glorified walk-on role in the Marx Brothers’ 1938 picture Room Service, and she and Marx were part of an ensemble that performed for U.S. troops during World War II.
Few New York City tenants have ever been as friendly with their landlords as Ricky and Lucy Ricardo were with Fred and Ethel Mertz. In I Love Lucy, Fred and Ethel—played by William Frawley and Vivian Vance—are ex-vaudevillians who own an East 68th Street brownstone in which the Ricardos rent an apartment. Fred and Ricky are best pals (improbably, given their differences in age and temperament), as are Ethel and Lucy. Frawley’s Fred—gruff, stingy and squandering no opportunity to poke mean fun at his wife’s weight—seldom rises above the level of a stock character. By contrast, Vance’s portrayal of Ethel—both Lucy’s cautioning conscience and her eager partner in crimes against domestic harmony—is wonderfully nuanced, among the best performances ever by an actor playing a sidekick role.
When the Ricardos move to suburban digs in Westport, Connecticut, at the end of I Love Lucy’s run in 1957, the Mertzes tag along, remaining regular characters in The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour’s 13 episodes (broadcast at intervals over the next three years). Following that show’s demise, Desilu Productions offered Frawley and Vance a spin-off series, but Vance refused to go on acting opposite Frawley, whom she detested.
Fred and Ethel Mertz, Lucy and Ricky’s neighbors on I Love Lucy, had a passable marriage, despite Fred’s penny-pinching and dyspeptic personality. But the actors who played them—William Frawley and Vivian Vance—loathed each other, and a Desilu proposal for a Fred and Ethel spin-off foundered when Vance refused to stay in the on-air marriage.
Frawley’s next gig was on the ABC (later CBS) comedy series My Three Sons, playing Bub, the grandfather and housekeeper of the Douglas home for the long-running show’s first five seasons,which were filmed on the Desilu lot. It was the last major role for the ailing, elderly Frawley; he was, to his dismay, forced off the show in 1965 and replaced by William Demarest, playing Bub’s brother, Charley. Vance, meanwhile, continued as Lucille Ball’s second banana, playing Vivian Bagley, the divorcée housemate of Lucy Carmichael, Ball’s character in the Desilu-produced series The Lucy Show (1962–1968). Sartorially, it was a step up for Vance, who before signing her contract demanded that she be allowed to wear clothes prettier than the frumpy frocks she’d worn in I Love Lucy. Even so, Viv Bagley is not the role for which Vance is remembered.
In naming their children, I Love Lucy’s costars perhaps weren’t quite as egomaniacal as, say, boxing champ George Foreman, who christened each of his five sons George. But maybe that’s because the couple had only two kids: Lucie Désirée Arnaz, named for her mother, Lucille Désirée Ball; and Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV, named for his father, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III. It may come as a surprise even to some diehard fans of I Love Lucy that Desi Arnaz Jr. did not play Little Ricky, the button-cute son of the Ricardos, though the real and the fictional boys shared a birthday—Lucy Ricardo’s onscreen pregnancy was coterminous, of course, with Lucille Ball’s. Rather, Little Ricky was played by five child actors, including two sets of twins and, during Lucy’s last season and throughout the run of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, a musically precocious kid named Keith Thibodeaux (credited as Richard Keith). Desi Jr. did get to appear on I Love Lucy, in a way, in the otherwise uninspired 1992 movie The Mambo Kings. Playing his father, he “interacted” with his mother in a fictional Lucy episode that splices in clips from the actual 1950s show.
Lucille Ball’s TV career didn’t end with her 1960 breakup with Desi Arnaz. She had two more CBS hits, The Lucy Show (1962–1968) and Here’s Lucy (1968–1974), as well as one dreadful flop (Life With Lucy, which lasted for six episodes in 1986). Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. joined their mother in Here’s Lucy, starring as her character’s teenage children, Kim and Craig Carter.
The lives of all children of celebrities are shadowed by their parents’ fame, but those of the younger Arnazes seem almost eclipsed. Desi Jr.—who began his showbiz career at age 12, playing drums for the bubblegum group Dino, Desi & Billy (bandmate Dino was Dean Martin Jr.)—has had an acting career of sorts, but his only notable film role was playing his father in The Mambo Kings in 1992. Lucie’s moderately successful career as a singer and actress includes her own, short-lived sitcom in 1985. Both children had a few small parts on The Lucy Show—and they appeared in a couple of episodes of the game show Password, competing against their mother and their stepfather, Gary Morton—but the Carter kids on Here’s Lucy were their most lasting roles.
According to Carol Burnett, early in the off-Broadway run of Once Upon a Mattress, the musical comedy based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea” that gave Burnett her first big career break, Lucille Ball dropped by her dressing room after a performance. That was in 1959, and the two rubber-faced, redheaded comedians became fast friends, remaining close until Ball’s death in 1989. Burnett appeared several times on Ball’s 1960s and ’70s sitcoms The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. In one episode of the latter Ball generously allows the younger performer to steal the show with her lusty rendition of “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah).” Ball in turn appeared on Burnett’s 1966 special, Carol + 2, and on The Carol Burnett Show, the long-running (1967–1978) CBS variety program.
The women possessed very similar talents; both were physicalcomics in the vein of Harpo Marx, amazingly gifted at taking well-timed pratfalls or striking hilariously ridiculous poses. A look at what may be Burnett’s most brilliant sketch, the “Went with the Wind” parody from a 1976 episode of Carol Burnett, confirms her debt to the style of clowning Ball perfected in the 1950s.