Lucille Ball (August 6, 1911 - April 26, 1989) was an iconic American comedian, actress and star of the landmark sitcoms I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here's Lucy. A thirteen-time Emmy Award winner (awarded 1953, 1956, 1967, 1968, 1976 - 9 awarded) with more than twenty-three other nominations. She was a charter member of the Television Hall of Fame. A major movie star and "glamour girl" of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. She also achieved success as a television actress from 1951 to the time of her passing in 1989. She received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1986. Ball, known as the "Queen of Comedy," was also responsible with her then-husband, Desi Arnaz, for the foundation of Desilu Studios, a pioneering studio in American television production in the 1950s and 60s.
Early life and career
Lucille Ball was born to Henry Ball (1886-1915) and Desiree "DeDe" Eveline Hunt (1892-1977) in Jamestown, New York, and grew up in the adjacent small town of Celoron, a suburb of Jamestown. Although Lucy was born in Jamestown, she told many people that she was born in Butte, Montana. Her family was Baptist; her father was of Scottish descent. Her mother was of French, Irish and English descent. Her genealogy can be traced back to the earliest settlers in the colonies. One ancestor, William Sprague (1609-1675), left England on the ship Lyon's Whelp for Plymouth/Salem, Massachusetts. They were from Upwey, Dorset, England. Along with his two brothers, William helped to found the city of Charlestown, Massachusetts. Other Sprague relatives became soldiers in the US Revolutionary War and two of them became governors of the state of Rhode Island.
Her father was a telephone lineman for the Bell Company, while her mother was often described as a lively and energetic young woman. Her father's job required frequent transfers, and within three years after her birth, Lucille had moved many times, from Jamestown to Anaconda, Montana, and then to Wyandotte, Michigan. While DeDe Ball was pregnant with her second child, Frederick, Henry Ball contracted typhoid fever and died in February 1915.
After her father died, Ball and her brother Fred were raised by her working mother and grandparents. Her grandfather, Fred C. Hunt, was an eccentric socialist who enjoyed the theater. He frequently took the family to vaudeville shows and encouraged young Lucy to take part in both her own and school plays.
In 1925 after a romance with a local bad boy (Johnny DeVita), Ball decided to enroll in the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts with her mother's approval. There, the shy girl was outshone by another pupil, Bette Davis. Ball went home a few weeks later when drama coaches told her that she "had no future at all as a performer".
She moved back to New York City in 1932 to become an actress and had some success as a fashion model for designer Hattie Carnegie and as the Chesterfield girl. She began her performing career on Broadway using the stage name "Diane Belmont" and was hired -- but then quickly fired -- by theatre impresario Earl Carroll from his Vanities and by Florenz Ziegfeld from a touring company of Rio Rita.
She was let go again from the Shubert brothers production of Stepping Stones. After an uncredited stint as one of the Goldwyn Girls in Roman Scandals (1933) she permanently moved to Hollywood to appear in films. She appeared in many small movie roles in the 1930s as a contract player for RKO (including movies with the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.) She can also be seen as one of the featured models in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film Roberta (1935), where she met her lifelong friend, Ginger Rogers. She and Rogers played aspiring actresses in the hit film Stage Door (1937) co-starring Katharine Hepburn. Ball would later claim that this was the film that first got her recognition. Ball was signed to MGM in the 1940s, but she never achieved great success in films.
She was known in many Hollywood circles as "Queen of the Bs" (a title previously held by Fay Wray) starring in a number of B-movies, such as 1939's Five Came Back. Macdonald Carey was designated as her "King".
In 1940, Ball met Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz while filming the film version of the Rodgers and Hart stage hit Too Many Girls. Ball and Arnaz connected immediately and eloped the same year, garnering much press attention. Arnaz and Ball frequently argued, especially over his indiscretions with other women, but they always made up in the end. Arnaz was drafted to the United States Army in 1942; he ended up being classified for limited service due to a knee injury. As a result, Arnaz stayed in Los Angeles, organizing and performing USO shows for wounded GIs being brought back from the Pacific. Ball filed for a divorce in 1944. However, shortly after Ball obtained an interlocutory decree, she reconciled with Arnaz again. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were only six years different in their ages but apparently believed that it was less socially acceptable for an older woman to marry a younger man, and hence split the difference in their ages and both claimed to have been born in 1914.
In 1948, Ball was cast as Liz Cugat (later "Cooper"), a wacky wife, in My Favorite Husband, a radio program for CBS. The program was successful, and CBS asked her to develop it for television, a show that eventually became I Love Lucy. She agreed, but insisted on working with Arnaz. CBS executives were reluctant, thinking the public would not accept an All-American redhead and a Cuban as a couple. CBS was initially not impressed with the pilot episode produced by the couple's Desilu Productions company, so the couple toured the road in a vaudeville act with Lucy as the zany housewife wanting to get in Arnaz's show. The tour was a smash, and CBS put the show on their lineup.
I Love Lucy and Desilu
The I Love Lucy show was not only a star vehicle for Lucille Ball, but a way for her to try to salvage her marriage to Desi Arnaz, which had become badly strained, in part by the fact that each had a hectic performing schedule which often kept them apart.
Along the way, she created a television dynasty and reached several "firsts". Ball was the first woman in television to be head of a production company: Desilu, the company that she and Arnaz formed. (After buying out her ex-husband's share of the studio, Ball functioned as a very active studio head.)
Desilu and I Love Lucy pioneered a number of methods still in use in television production today. When the show premiered, most shows were captured by kinescope, and the picture was inferior to film. The decision was made to film the series, a decision driven by the performers' desire to stay in Los Angeles.
Sponsor Philip Morris did not want to show kinescopes to the major markets on the east coast, so Desilu agreed to take a pay cut to finance filming. In return, CBS relinquished the show rights back to Desilu after broadcast, not realizing they were giving away a valuable and durable asset. Desilu made many millions of dollars on I Love Lucy rebroadcasts through syndication and became a textbook example of how a show can be profitable in second-run syndication. In television's infancy, the concept of the rerun hadn't yet formed, and many in the industry wondered who would want to see a program a second time.
Desilu also hired legendary German cameraman Karl Freund as their director of photography. Freund had worked for F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, shot part of Metropolis, and had directed a number of Hollywood films himself. Freund used a three-camera setup, which became the standard way of filming situation comedies.
Shooting long shots, medium shots, and close-ups on a comedy in front of a live audience demanded discipline, technique, and close choreography. Among other non-standard techniques used in filming the show, cans of paint (in shades ranging from white to medium gray) were kept on set to "paint out" inappropriate shadows and disguise lighting flaws.
I Love Lucy dominated the weekly TV ratings in the United States for most of its run. The show made a lot of firsts. In the scene where Lucy and Ricky are practicing the tango in the episode, "Lucy Does The Tango," the longest recorded studio audience laugh in the history of the show was produced. It was so long, in fact, that the sound editor had to cut that particular part of the soundtrack in half. The strenuous rehearsals and demands of Desilu studio kept the Arnazes too busy to comprehend the show's success. During the show's hiatus', they starred together in feature films: Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Alexander Hall's Forever Darling (1956). According to a number of sources, such as biographers Stern Kanfer and Bart Andrews, when the couple finally found time to attend a Hollywood movie premiere in late 1953, the entire star-studded audience stood and turned with a thunderous applause. It finally connected with the Arnazes. I Love Lucy made them the biggest stars in the nation, even among the Hollywood elite.
Desilu produced several other popular shows, most notably Our Miss Brooks, The Untouchables, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible. Many other shows, particularly Sheldon Leonard-produced series like Make Room for Daddy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and I Spy, were filmed at Desilu Studios and bear its logo.
Children and divorce
On July 17, 1951, just one month before her 40th birthday and after several miscarriages, Ball gave birth to her first child, Lucie Desiree Arnaz. A year and a half later, Ball gave birth to her second child, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV, known as Desi Arnaz, Jr. When he was born, I Love Lucy was a solid ratings hit, and Ball and Arnaz wrote the pregnancy into the show (indeed, Ball gave birth in real life on the same day that her Lucy Ricardo character gave birth). There were several challenges from CBS, insisting that a pregnant woman could not be shown on television, nor could the word "pregnant" be spoken on-air. After approval from several religious figures the network allowed the pregnancy storyline, but insisted that the word "expecting" be used instead of "pregnant". (Arnaz garnered laughs when he deliberately mispronounced it as "'spectin'.) The birth made the first cover of TV Guide in January 1953.
Ball's instincts with business were often astonishingly sharp, and her love for Arnaz was passionate, but her relationships with her children were sometimes strained. Lucie Arnaz, her daughter, spoke of her mother's "controlling" nature. She had a few very good friends in the business: Ginger Rogers, Mary Wickes and Vivian Vance. All were childless; Wickes never married.
In 1953, Ball was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities because she had registered to vote in the Communist party primary election in 1936 at her socialist grandfather's insistence (per FBI FOIA-released documents in a declassified FBI file.) Immediately before the filming of episode 68 ("The Girls Go Into Business") of I Love Lucy, people in the studio audience made signs and started booing, their minds on her Capitol Hill appearance. Desi Arnaz came onstage and quipped: "The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that's not legitimate." Then, he presented her and people started cheering for her.
By the end of the 1950s, Desilu had become a large company, causing a good deal of stress for both Ball and Arnaz; his increasing drinking further compounded matters. On May 4, 1960, just 2 months after filming the final episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, the couple divorced, ending one of television's greatest marriages. However, until his death in 1986, Arnaz would remain friends with Ball. Indeed, both Arnaz and Ball spoke lovingly of each other after the breakup.
The following year, Ball did a musical on Broadway, Wildcat, co-starring Paula Stewart. It was Stewart who introduced her to her next husband Gary Morton, a Borscht Belt stand-up comic who was twelve years her junior. That marked the beginning of a 30-year friendship between Lucy and Paula. Morton told interviewers at the time that he had never seen Ball on television, since he was always performing during primetime. Ball immediately installed Morton in her production company, teaching him the television business and eventually promoting him to producer. Morton also played occasional bit parts on Ball's various series.
Following I Love Lucy, Ball appeared in the 1960 Broadway musical Wildcat, which was a successful sell-out that ended up losing money and closing early when Ball became too ill to continue in the show. The show was the source of the song she made famous, "Hey, Look Me Over." which she performed with Paula Stewart on "The Ed Sullivan Show". She made a few more movies including Yours, Mine, and Ours, and the musical Mame, a film in which Ball was considered by many to be too old to play the starring role, and two more successful long-running sitcoms for CBS: The Lucy Show (1962-68), which costarred Vance and Gale Gordon, and Here's Lucy (1968-74), which also featured Gordon, as well Lucy's real life children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr.
Ball was originally considered, by Frank Sinatra, for the role of Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate. However, director/producer John Frankenheimer had worked with Angela Lansbury in a mother role in another film, and insisted on having her for the part. (Source: Frankenheimer's DVD audio commentary.)
During the mid-1980s, she attempted to resurrect her television career. In 1982, Ball hosted a two-part Three's Company retrospective, showing clips from the show's first five seasons, summarizing memorable plotlines, and commenting on her love of the show. The second part of the special ended with her receiving a kiss on the cheek from John Ritter. A 1985 dramatic made-for-TV film about an elderly homeless woman, Stone Pillow, was well received. However, her 1986 sitcom comeback Life With Lucy (costarring her longtime foil Gale Gordon and co-produced by Miss Ball, Gary Morton, and former actor Aaron Spelling) was a critical and commercial flop which was canceled less than two months into its run by ABC.
The failure of this series was said to have sent Ball into a serious depression, and other than a few miscellaneous awards show appearances, she was absent from the public eye for the last several years of her life. Her last appearance, several weeks before her death, was at the 1989 Oscar telecast in which she was presented by Bob Hope to a cheering audience.
On April 18, 1989, Ball complained of chest pains and was rushed to the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She was diagnosed as having a dissecting aortic aneurysm and underwent surgery for nearly eight hours. The surgery was successful and Ball was recovering; she was walking around her room with little assistance. On April 26, shortly before dawn, Ball awoke with severe back pains. Her aorta had ruptured in a second location and Ball quickly lost consciousness. All attempts to revive her proved unsuccessful and at approximately 5:17 a.m., Lucille Ball died at the age of 77.
She was initially interred in Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, but in 2002 her ashes were moved to the family plot at Lake View Cemetery in Jamestown, New York where Ball's mother, father, brother, and grandparents are buried.
On May 1, 1989, one week after her death, Lucille Ball was featured as a subplot on the TV series Designing Women wherein stars Jean Smart and Dixie Carter discuss Charlene (Smart)'s new Lucille Ball VHS tape and Julia (Carter) responds, "Yes I love Lucy, we all love Lucy." A photo of Lucy on the set of I Love Lucy was used as the backdrop to the episode's credits, as well as the theme song of the series.
On July 6, 1989, Lucille Ball was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H. W. Bush.
In 1990, Lucille Ball was posthumously awarded the Women's International Center's Living Legacy Award.
The Little Theatre in Jamestown, New York was renamed the Lucille Ball Little Theatre in 1991.
In 2000, Lucille Ball was among Time magazine's 100 Most Important People of the Century. On August 6, 2001, on what would have been her 90th birthday, the United States Postal Service honored her with a commemorative postage stamp as part of its Legends of Hollywood series. In 2002, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Lucille Ball has appeared on the cover of TV Guide more than any other person; she appeared on 39 covers.
In 1996, TV Guide voted Lucille Ball as the Greatest TV Star of All Time. In 2001, it commemorated the 50th Anniversary of I Love Lucy with eight collector covers celebrating memorable scenes from the show. In 2002, TV Guide named I Love Lucy the second most influential television program in American history.
In 2007, she was posthumously awarded the Legacy of Laughter award at the 5th Annual TV Land Awards, and I Love Lucy was named the Greatest TV Series by Hall of Fame Magazine.