The most infiuential woman in the history of television, Lucille Ball remains among the medium’s best-loved performers. She appeared on weekly series almost continually for 23 years, always playing a variation on “Lucy,” the wacky, red-headed scatterbrain who, unlike Ball, had ambitions that far outstripped her talents. Born on August 8, 1911, Lucille Désirée Ball overcame a desperately unhappy childhood. She spent her early years in Jamestown, New York, where her father died when she was three. Her other remarried and left Ball in the care of her stepgrandparents, stern disciplinarians who tried to stifie Lucille’s natural bent toward theatricality. With her mother’s support, Ball left home at 15 to attend John Murray Anderson/Robert Milton School of the Theater and Dance in New York City. Doubtful of her own talent and intimidated by her fellow students (who included the future film star BETTE DAVIS), Ball quit the school and returned to Jamestown after only a month. She quickly recovered from her bout of insecurity and started visiting New York to find work as an actress. A striking beauty, she had more initial success as a model. Her image in an ad for Chesterfield cigarettes attracted an agent and won her a role in Roman Scandals (1933), an extravaganza directed by Busby Berkeley and starring Eddie Cantor. With characteristic focus, Ball used the opportunity to watch and listen, hoping to learn everything possible about working in films. Show business legend holds that when, for a comic bit, the filmmaker needed a beauty to have her face sprayed with mud, Ball volunteered. Impressed with her pluck, Berkeley supposedly said, “Get that girl’s name. That’s the one who will make it.”Ball began appearing in small film roles and was placed under contract first by Columbia and then by RKO. Although she received regular work, the film industry had difficulty using Ball well: With the looks of an ingenue and the spirit of a comic, she defied attempts to type her in conventional roles.
Her best early role was in Stage Door (1937), where as a smart-mouthed aspiring actress she stood out in a cast that also included KATHARINE HEPBURN, GINGER ROGERS, and EVE ARDEN. In 1940 Ball was cast in the film version of the Broadway musical Too Many Girls. One of the performers recruited from the Broadway cast was DesiArnaz, a young Cuban musician who was five years her junior. Immediately, Ball and Arnaz were attracted to each other, even though early in their romance, it was obvious their personalities clashed. Despite their tendency toward frequent and ferocious arguments, the practical Ball and reckless Arnaz were married within months. Ball thought she had found her breakthrough role as a bitter nightclub singer in The Big Street (1942). But, instead, soon after it appeared, RKO chose not to renew her contract. Ball, then 33, signed up with another studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Seeing her years as an ingenue warning, she welcomed the studio’s attempts to remake her image. As part of her MGM makeover, her brown hair was dyed a fiery red designed to make her stand out in Technicolor films. Although her red hair would become her trademark, Ball’s stint working for MGM was a disappointment. A studio that specialized in musicals, it produced few vehicles that could showcase the nonsinging Ball. After several years of being cast in ever smaller parts, MGM released her from her contract in 1946. From 1947 to 1951, Ball starred in the radio program My Favorite Husband, a role that brought her to the attention of the early television industry. When CBS approached Ball with the idea of featuring her in a television version of her show, she was hesitant at first. At the time, movie industry leaders so looked down on the new medium of television that starring in a television series would essentially end any chance she would ever have at movie stardom. The offer, however, was still intriguing to Ball for personal reasons. She had been looking for a project on which she and Arnaz could work together, believing that might help save their rocky marriage. A bandleader, Arnaz was often on tour. His infidelities while away had already led Ball to file for divorce in 1944, but the couple soon reconciled.
Ball proposed that Arnaz be cast as the male lead in My Favorite Husband, but CBS balked. A Cuban American with a strong accent, Arnaz did not strike the network executives as right for the part of a midwestern banker. They were also not convinced that America would embrace Ball and Arnaz as a couple because of their mixed ethnicity. To change their minds, Ball and Arnaz set out on a touring act, blending music and comedy. Hailed by Variety as “a socko new act,” the show was such a success that CBS became interested in designing a program for the couple. The enterprise, though, was still considered so risky that CBS insisted Ball and Arnaz take a cut in salary. They agreed in exchange for CBS’s grant of ownership of the show to Desilu, a production company the couple borrowed $5,000 to form. Six months pregnant with her first child, Lucie Désirée Arnaz, Ball filmed a pilot for I Love Lucy in early 1951. On October 15, the program premiered and quickly became the most popular show on television. At its height, as many as two-thirds of American families with television sets were faithful viewers. One of the most successful shows in the history of the medium, it was rated the number-one show for four years of its six-year run.
I Love Lucy featured the adventures of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, played by Ball and Arnaz, and their friends and landlords Ethel and Fred Mertz (played by Vivian Vance and William Frawley). The show often focused on the mayhem set in motion by Lucy’s desire for a performing career against Ricky’s wishes. At the core of its success was Ball’s fiair for slapstick, a talent her film career had never exploited well. Using Ball’s comic skill and innate appeal to their best advantage, I Love Lucy struck a chord with the public almost immediately. Recognizing the effect, Ball once recalled, “I never found a place of my own, never became truly confident, until, in the Lucy character, I began to create something that was truly mine. The potential was there. Lucy released it.”I Love Lucy was also an innovator in the television industry. At Ball and Arnaz’s insistence, it was filmed before a live audience using three cameras, a technique then rare but now almost universally used for situation comedies. It also explored new subject matter when Ball became pregnant with her second child during the show’s second season. She persuaded CBS to allow her character also to become pregnant, leading to one of the most successful ratings stunts in television history. On January 9, 1953, Lucille Ball gave birth to Desi Arnaz Jr. by a cesarean section scheduled for the day that Lucy Ricardo gave birth to “Little Ricky” on I Love Lucy. A record-making 44 million viewers tuned in to see Little Ricky’s arrival. While still America’s number-one show, I Love Lucy went off the air in 1957. Although Ball and Arnaz reprised their characters in a series of specials, their offscreen marriage had completely unraveled, owing largely to Arnaz’s drinking and philandering. They finally divorced in 1960. The next year, Ball married a young comedian, Gary Morton, who remained her husband until her death.
In 1962 Ball also severed professional ties with Arnaz by buying out his share in Desilu. Because of their television work, the production company had become so successful that it was able to buy RKO, the movie studio that years ago had unceremoniously declined to renew Ball’s contract. From 1962 through 1967, Ball served as Desilu’s president and CEO, giving her more power in the television industry than any woman had held before. Although Desilu began to struggle financially, during Ball’s tenure it produced two enduring television classics—Star Trek and Mission Impossible. Ball finally sold the company to Paramount for $18 million, when she decided she could no longer perform both the role of executive and of television star. After I Love Lucy, Ball returned to television in The Lucy Show, which was later renamed Here’s Lucy. From 1962 to 1974, she played a widow and working mother whose constant scheming exhausted her boss Mr. Moody (Gale Gordon). Initially, The Lucy Show reunited Ball with Vivian Vance, and on Here’s Lucy she eventually costarred with her two teenage children. Even after she left episodic television, Ball still appeared regularly on specials and occasionally in films. She also made a splash on Broadway in Mame in 1974 and was recognized for her dramatic range in Stone Pillow (1983), a television movie in which she played a bag lady. A late effort to return to television in a situation comedy, how ever, proved a disaster. The much-hyped Life with Lucy (1986) drew few viewers and was yanked from the air after only eight episodes. The debacle did little to tarnish Ball’s reputation as the queen of television comedy. Three weeks after the last Life with Lucy program aired, she was in Washington, D.C., to receive from President Ronald Reagan a Kennedy Center Award, the United States’s highest honor for a performer. Following her death on April 26, 1989, the many glowing tributes from her peers and fans gave further testament to her enduring appeal and infiuence.
Ball, Lucille, with Betty Hannah Hoffman. Love, Lucy New York: Putnam, 1996.
Brady, Kathleen. Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball. New York Hyperion, 1994.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
CBS Salutes Lucy: The First 25 Years (1976). Image Entertainment, DVD/VHS, 2001.
Collectors Choice Double Feature: The Lucy Show (1951)
Madacy Entertainment, DVD, 1999.
Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie.White Star, VHS, 1994.