Lucille Ball was a true television pioneer. A producer and the first woman to run a major production studio, she helped lay the groundwork for the invention of television syndication and was a catalyst in small screen production moving from New York to Los Angeles and on to the medium of film. Trekkies can thank Ball for giving Star Trek, as well as other cherished shows such as Mission: Impossible and The Dick Van Dyke Show, the green light.
“I'm not funny. What I am is brave,” was how Ball once described herself. Millions of fans would debate the first statement, noting her groundbreaking role of Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy in the burgeoning years of television.
“Lucille Ball was completely unique as a performer. Her gift for physical comedy is almost unparalleled,” says Kathleen Brady, author of Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball. “She was a unique talent who continues to give us – over the generations – joy.”
As Lucy Ricardo, Ball delivered what is now classic television comedy. She was at her best when her character was a fish out water, trying to make a situation go right, even when it had already, hilariously, gone totally wrong. In a time when wives were more often portrayed as the saintly homemaker, Ball arrived on screens as a wacky redhead who, usually with best friend Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance) in tow, was willing to try anything once. Be it working in a candy wrapping factory, trying to pronounce “Vitameatavegamin” as a spokesperson on a vitamin commercial, stomping grapes, or taking part in a dance challenge.
Off-camera she was a shrewd businessperson, never relying on luck to get her through. “Luck? I don’t know anything about luck,” Ball said. “I’ve never banked on it and I’m afraid of people who do. Luck to me is something else: Hard work – and realizing what is opportunity and what isn’t.”
Drama school wasn't the right fit for Ball
Born August 6, 1911, in Jamestown, New York, Ball’s early years were marked by relocations and the death of her father, Henry, from typhoid when she was three years old. Her mother Desiree, pregnant with Ball’s brother Fred, moved the family back to Jamestown and would go on to remarry.
At age 15 Ball convinced her mother to allow her to attend drama school in New York City. Though success on stage was her aim, drama school was not a good fit. “All I learned in drama school was how to be frightened,” Ball said of the experience alongside classmates which included Bette Davis.
She remained in New York City though, finding work as a model. Hollywood beckoned, and Ball headed west to become a studio girl, bouncing from major production house to major production house in search of a role that would propel her up the star ladder. It was during this period while working on the film Dance, Girl, Dance that she met Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. They appeared together in Ball’s next film, Too Many Girls, and by the end of 1940, the couple had fallen in love and were married.
Ball was dubbed 'Queen of the B movies'
Though Ball appeared in 72 movies over her career, big screen success would elude her, and she was bestowed with the unofficial title “Queen of the B movies.” But it was during those early Hollywood years that Ball found what would become her niche, albeit on the small screen, not the big. At that time “a lot of the really beautiful girls didn't want to do some of the things I did – put on mud packs and scream and run around and fall into pools,” Ball told People magazine. “I didn't mind getting messed up. That's how I got into physical comedy.”
“Ball always knew it was a great advantage to be typecast,” says Kennedy. “The problem she faced when she was trying to launch her movie career before television was that nobody knew how to typecast her.”
Ball and Arnaz made 'I Love Lucy' on their own terms
For Ball, comedy would be the path to major stardom. From 1947-1950 Ball achieved success on radio with My Favorite Husband, in which she played a ditzy housewife. CBS was keen for Ball to create something similar for television, but Ball stipulated any show must include real-life husband Arnaz. CBS balked. Rather than give in to the studio’s demands, the couple put together a vaudeville-style routine and took it on the road.
Success followed, and so did CBS, along with more demands from Arnaz and Ball: Any show they did must be filmed in Hollywood rather than New York (where television was mostly being shot at the time), the sitcom must be recorded on film instead of the less-expensive kinescope, with multiple cameras used instead of the then-popular single camera set-up. To achieve all this, the couple took a reduction in pay but retained full ownership of the program under the umbrella of their newly formed company Desilu Productions.
Taking inspiration from their own lives, Ball and Arnaz created I Love Lucy, a sitcom about a young couple, Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, and their best friends and neighbors/landlords Fred (William Frawley) and Ethel (Vance) Mertz. Debuting October 15, 1951, I Love Lucy became the number one show in America four years running, then number two and number three respectively over its six-season run.
Having broken new industry ground behind the scenes with the CBS and Desilu deal, Ball was set on marking firsts in front of the camera. I Love Lucy was one of the first sitcoms ever to showcase a multi-ethnic marriage on primetime, feature a pregnant star (Ball, pregnant with son Desi Jr.) and have a realistic portrayal of female friendship between characters Lucy and Ethel.
While filming 'I Love Lucy,' Ball and Arnaz's marriage was crumbling
What fans didn’t know while watching Ball and Arnaz entertain on screen was that the real-life couple had a turbulent marriage before and during the successful run of I Love Lucy with Ball filing for divorce in 1944 before reconciling with Arnaz. Their marriage began to disintegrate further over the Lucy run, with much of the blame stemming from Arnaz’s struggles with alcohol and womanizing. As Desilu grew, Arnaz grappled with the stress of running the rapidly growing production company.
By 1960 the marriage was over, and Ball and Arnaz divorced. Two years later, as Ball prepared to return to weekly television with The Lucy Show, the pressure of running Desilu became too great for Arnaz and the couple worked out an agreement for Ball to buy Arnaz’s share of Desilu. In 1962 Ball paid Arnaz a reported $2.5 million for his shares, becoming the first female CEO of a major television and movie production company.
“As a businesswoman, when I spoke to her, she gave Desi Arnaz 90 percent of the credit for her business success, but sadly Desi burned out,” says Brady. “Ball had to take over the studio, which she did reluctantly, but she did that to save it.”
Ball went on to produce popular TV shows
She not only saved it, she steered the company to profitability and even greater success, producing some of TV’s most popular shows including Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, The Untouchables, Make Room for Daddy, and The Dick Van Dyke Show. According to Brady, “Her great wisdom as a businesswoman was to listen to the right people and make the hard decisions correctly.” Though she was ahead of her time, Brady notes her continued successes brought respectability within the industry. “People knew she owned the studio so there was never any underestimating or patronizing Lucille Ball. She would not have put up with that.”
Though Desilu thrived – Ball would eventually sell the company to Gulf + Western/Paramount in 1967 for $17.5 million – she would never again achieve the success on television she did with I Love Lucy or become a true star of the silver screen.
“Ball would have loved to have been a big movie star, but she knew absolutely she was a great star and her role in the realm of entertainment was unique and paramount,” says Brady. “Without being obnoxious she knew she had eclipsed the great stars of her era.”
Ball never had the same level of success after 'I Love Lucy,' but her legacy lives on
Ball revisited her now trademark comedy style with two more sitcoms, The Lucy Show (1962-1968) and Here’s Lucy (1968-1974). A third attempt, Life with Lucy, was the only Ball sitcom not aired on CBS. A ratings flop, it debuted September 20, 1986, on ABC, but canceled after only eight of the 13 episodes aired.
Away from the spotlight she achieved marital success the second time around with comedian Gary Morton. The couple were married in 1962 and remained together throughout the rest of Ball’s life. Interviewed by People magazine in 1980, Ball credited the longevity of her marriage to Morton taking things in moderation. “He doesn’t think the grass is greener elsewhere, he’s not a workaholic or a play-aholic and he appreciates his home. Desi was a generous man who built many houses but never lived in any home. On a scale of 1 to 10, I rate my marriage to Gary a 12.”
Arnaz and Ball remained friends throughout their lives, with Arnaz marrying his second wife, Edith Hirsch, in 1963. Arnaz died December 2, 1986, at age 69. Less than three years later Ball would pass away from an aortic rupture on April 26, 1989, at 77 years of age.
During her career Ball was awarded four Emmy Awards, the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award (1979), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center Honors (1986), and inducted into the Television Hall of Fame (1984).
In 2001 the US Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp featuring her likeness and in 2009 a life-size statue of the actress was erected in her childhood hometown of Celoron, NY. The latter came under much scrutiny for what many believed to be a poor likeness of the star, with a new, more flattering statue replacing the original in 2016.
“People were in awe of her,” says Brady of Ball. “To be in her presence was an extraordinary experience and a thrill. The public always loved her and never abandoned that.”