Many people consider Lucille Ball the queen of comedy, and the Chicago Tribune referred to her as TV’s first lady. She paired with Desi Arnaz for an unforgettable comedic duo that has remained beloved decades after her death. Here are some facts about the comedic legend that may surprise you.
Lucy and Ethel Were Not BFFs in Real Life
Vivian Vance was the perfect comedic sidekick to her on-screen best friend Lucy (Lucille Ball) on I Love Lucy. It’s well known among fans that Vance hated her co-star, William Frawley, who played her on-screen husband, Fred. However, she and Ball had such great chemistry as friends on-screen that many fans believed the two must’ve been close in real life.
The truth is that Ball and Vance didn’t initially get along. As time went on, they grew more supportive of each other, but they remained competitive and feuded throughout the run of I Love Lucy at different points. It was truly a love/hate relationship.
Lucy and Desi Divorced Before ‘I Love Lucy’ Even Aired
Plenty of I Love Lucy fans know that Ball and Arnaz got divorced in the 1960s after spending 20 years together, but many aren’t aware of the fact that this was actually the second divorce for the couple. Lucy originally filed for divorce not long after the couple married, back in 1944.
That’s right – the classic Hollywood couple actually split up seven years before I Love Lucy premiered. The two ultimately reconciled and stayed married until their final parting in 1960, when Ball finally got fed up with Arnaz’s drinking and philandering behavior.
Lucille was 40 at the Start of ‘I Love Lucy’
Lucy was a groundbreaking star for many reasons, not the least of which was her age. I Love Lucy began when Ball was 40 years old, an age at which actresses are often considered to be “too old,” even today! Her husband and on-screen love interest, Arnaz, was 34 at a time when it was considered taboo for an older woman to be paired with a younger man.
Ball was also famously pregnant on the show, which was considered somewhat shocking at the time. The episode wherein her character gives birth to Little Ricky wound up being the highest-rated episode of the series. She had two children during the show’s run – daughter Lucie Arnaz and son Desi Arnaz, Jr.
Lucy and Desi’s Children are Named After Them
When you hear the full name of Ball’s daughter, you may assume that Lucie Désirée Arnaz was named after both her mother (Lucy) and father (Desi). However, Ball’s middle name was Désirée, named after her mother. So Lucie’s name could’ve been in honor of Ball or Ball’s mother, or both!
One thing is for sure – Lucy and Desi were happy to pass on their names to their children. Their only son was named Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV, after his father. Despite her years of success in Hollywood and her status as a comedy icon, Ball insisted that her children were her greatest achievements.
Lucy and Desi Frequently Cracked Each Other Up While Filming
Ball and Arnaz were professionals, so they could usually keep from breaking character and laughing when filming scenes that were particularly funny. However, they weren’t completely immune to cracking up, which you can absolutely see while watching certain episodes.
Sometimes, you can hear Arnaz’s very distinctive laughter in scenes he’s not even in! That’s because he would frequently stand off-camera to watch filming, and Ball’s antics would hit him so hard that he couldn’t keep it in. Watch a few classic episodes and listen closely, and you’ll probably hear him.
Her Kids are Making an A-List Movie About Her
Lucy and Desi’s two children are in pre-production on a film about their famous parents. With a screenplay that’s being written by Aaron Sorkin, and Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett signed on to play Ball, they are aiming high to make the film a top tier production.
According to Ball’s daughter Lucie, the movie, titled Lucy and Desi, is going to focus on her parents’ unusual love story. It was a complex relationship that lasted longer than their actual marriage, with the two frequently disagreeing on how involved they should be in show business.
‘I Love Lucy’ was Always a Top Three Show
I Love Lucy is iconic and beloved nearly 70 years after its debut, so it might not be too surprising to learn that it was an instant hit. But that’s actually unusual – many other mega-hit TV shows took time to become successful. For example, Cheers ranked among the worst shows on some weeks during its first season. I Love Lucy never had that problem.
Lucille Ball’s beloved sitcom never ranked below third place throughout its entire six-year run. It was the number one show in the United States of America within six months of its October 15, 1951 debut. At a time when there were only around 15 million television sets owned in the country, around 11 million of them were tuned into the sitcom.
Ball Became a Recluse
By all accounts, Desi Arnaz was an alcoholic. When he would drink, he would sometimes leave Ball for long periods of time. During this time, she became a virtual recluse in her home. According to The Los Angeles Times, she would not want to deal with society or answer questions from others who wondered about her absent husband.
However, Ball’s tendency to be a recluse wasn’t only related to her complex relationship with Desi. After the failure of her last show Life with Lucy, which also coincided with the year Desi died, Ball allegedly became a bitter recluse until her death in 1989.
Lucy was a High School Dropout
The intelligent actress who propelled herself to stardom by co-creating I Love Lucy and co-founding Desilu Productions never finished her formal education in a traditional way. Like other big stars who would come after her such as John Travolta, Kate Winslet, Katy Perry, and Olivia Newton-John, Lucille Ball dropped out of high school.
Ball moved to New York City at the tender age of 15, where she attended drama school. Things weren’t always easy, and she struggled a lot in her early days in show business, receiving numerous rejections before she finally started landing roles.
She and Desi Remained Close Until Death
For better or worse, Lucy and Desi could certainly push each other’s buttons. That meant they could bring out the best in each other, but also the worst. Although Ball and Arnaz eventually got divorced, friends say they never lost their affection for each other.
Arnaz died in 1986 from lung cancer, while Ball died in 1989 from an acute aortic aneurysm (Aranz died at the age of 69, and Ball lived to be 77). The two had a lot of differences, but their everlasting love and affection for each other stood the test of time even as they moved on with their lives and remarried other people.
Lucy wasn’t Sure She Could Have Children
Many celebrities have spoken openly about the pain of suffering multiple miscarriages in recent years. However, back when Lucille Ball was at the height of her fame, this was not a subject that was openly discussed. Sadly, Ball had multiple miscarriages, and was essentially forced to keep it to herself.
According to People, Ball may have experienced as many as three miscarriages early in her marriage to Desi Arnaz before the couple had their two children, Lucie and Desi Jr. That was understandably very difficult for Lucille, who, according to close friends, was feeling pressured to have children because she believed it would keep her marriage together.
Lucy was the First ‘Openly’ Pregnant Woman on TV
Lucille Ball was the first actress to have her pregnancy shown on television. During the episode where Lucy tells Ricky that she is pregnant, the expecting couple actually teared up during the scene’s first take, and that’s the scene that wound up on TV.
When Ball gave birth to Desi Arnaz, Jr. on January 19, 1953, the episode in which her character Lucy gives birth to Little Ricky was shown on the same night. The New York Times referred to the the episode as a “national event”. It had a record-setting 44 million people tune in, with a million delighted fans sending congratulatory notes and gifts.
Desi Jr. Starred as Himself on The Brady Bunch
Desi Jr. enjoyed fame as a teen heartthrob, which, among other things, got him guest spots on other shows. That included the hit sitcom The Brady Bunch. On the show, eldest daughter Marcia Brady was an adoring fan of the young star.
In one episode of The Brady Bunch, Marcia believes she is in love with Desi Arnaz, Jr. At the time, Desi Jr. was a member of pop group Dino, Desi & Billy, and the teenage Marcia was smitten. In the 1970 episode, “The Possible Dream,” Desi Jr. guest stars as himself, and he even gives Marcia a kiss.
The Producers of ‘I Love Lucy’ Wanted Her Husband to be White
Lucille got her deal for I Love Lucy on the heels of the success of a comedic radio program she’d created, about a banker and his wife. However, when she was offered to develop the radio show into a television series, she insisted that her real-life husband portray her on-screen husband.
The problem, as the studio executives saw it, was that Desi was Cuban, who spoke imperfect English with a strong accent. He wasn’t like anyone else on TV at the time.
The studio worried that audiences would have a hard time embracing a show about an white woman married to a Cuban man. Ball wouldn’t budge, and eventually the producers agreed.
Desi Started the Conga in the U.S.
Remember the 1980s hit song “Conga” by the Miami Sound Machine, led by Gloria Estefan? Did you know it had ties to I Love Lucy?
Well, the song celebrates the fun Cuban carnival dance move that came to popularity in the mid-20th century. According to The Los Angeles Times, it was Desi Arnaz who first made the conga dance line popular in the United States.
The novelty line dance involves a line of people holding on to one another and snaking around the dance floor. After three shuffle steps on the beat of the drum, there’s a kick that’s just ahead of the fourth beat. Like Estefan, Arnaz had Cuban roots, and he celebrated them with his music.
Ball Had Three Shows After ‘I Love Lucy’
When most people think of Lucille Ball, they also think of Desi Arnaz and I Love Lucy. However, Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960, and enjoyed several more decades of success on her own. Her two biggest hits after I Love Lucy were The Lucy Show (1962-68) and Here’s Lucy (1968-1974).
Life with Lucy, which premiered the year Desi died, was the only show with her name in the title that was not a success. In fact, it tanked so badly that it is often considered among the worst television shows ever made. It starred Lucy as a widowed grandmother, and child star and future musician Jenny Lewis as her granddaughter.
Lucy Met Desi on a Movie Set
Although Lucy and Desi are an iconic television duo, they actually met on a movie set. Decades before it was acceptable to bounce between films and TV as part of one’s career (it was seen as a failure to start in movies and then go to TV), Lucy and Desi were fearless in their transition to television after experiencing modest success in film.
They met on the set of Too Many Girls. The movie premiered in 1940, 11 years before I Love Lucy first aired on TV. Lucille had a big role in the film as Connie Casey, a young girl who doesn’t realize that her father has hired bodyguards to look after her in college.
Desi was Insecure About His Height
Desi Arnaz didn’t have too much of an ego about the show that brought him fame and fortune. After all, it had Lucy’s name in the title, and he always admitted that she was the star. However, he was insecure about being shorter than his famous wife, so he frequently wore lifts.
Although Arnaz was visibly shorter than Ball, he wore those lifts all throughout I Love Lucy, and listed his height to biographers as several inches taller than he actually was. If you’re looking for it, you can clearly spot his elevator shoes and even high-heeled boots in many episodes of the sitcom.
Lucy Was Always a ‘Hands-On’ Producer
Lucille and Desi were well-known for their savvy as co-producers of I Love Lucy (they created their own roles for the show, which was rare), but Lucy began her career as a super-involved producer many years earlier. While studying drama in school, she got very involved in the creation of the plays.
In an early production of the play Charley’s Aunt, Ball got so immersed in the project that she did much more than just play the lead role. She cast the rest of the actors, directed the play, personally sold tickets, and printed up posters to promote the play. She even did manual labor, bringing in furniture herself to use as props in the production.
Without Lucy, There Would Be No Star Trek
Have you heard of Star Trek or The Untouchables? Those are just a couple of the successful shows that were produced by Desilu Productions. Desi and Lucille owned the production company together, which they formed to make I Love Lucy.
They founded Desilu Productions in 1962. It became the most successful independent television production studio in the world. They eventually sold it, and it became Paramount Television, the TV production arm of Paramount Pictures.
Lucy Started Out as a Model
Although she is a beautiful woman, Lucille never really attempted to have a glamorous look in her television career, so you might be surprised to learn that Lucy earned her living as a model before she ever turned to comedy for her show business career. In fact, she dyed her blonde hair red to differentiate herself from the idea of a Hollywood starlet.
Lucille was a hat model for Hattie Carnegie’s salon early in her modeling career. In the 1930s, she received attention as the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl. She did a lot of other modeling gigs before phasing it out in favor of acting in films and TV shows.
Lucy and Desi Shared Loving Last Words
When Desi died of lung cancer in 1986, Lucille released a statement, saying that their relationship had remained “very close, very amiable,” and that she was grateful to God that his suffering was over.
Their final words to each other were gentle and loving. In fact, Lucy’s daughter said she told Desi how much she loved him three times in a row in their last conversation. Desi’s last words to Lucy were wishing her good luck on her upcoming TV show (Life with Lucy).
Lucy Remarried, but She Always Loved Desi
When Lucille died, she was married to comedian and TV producer Gary Morton. The two met on a blind date less than a year after her divorce from Desi. They married shortly after, much to the chagrin of Lucy’s daughter, who described the marriage as a difficult time.
As for Morton, he realized that his wife still loved her first husband. When Lucille died, he said that she would be happy, because she’d get to be with Desi again. Morton died 10 years later.
‘I Love Lucy’ Won Five Emmys
I Love Lucy garnered a whopping 24 Emmy award nominations during its run. Ball herself won two awards for her portrayal of the show’s title character. However, many fans think the show should have received greater critical acclaim.
Consider this: The X-Files received 61 Emmy nominations and won 15, Downton Abbey received 69 Emmy nominations and won 15, Will & Grace received 88 Emmy nominations and won 16, and Murphy Brown won 18 Emmys.
Somehow, I Love Lucy only won 5 Emmys. That said, awards aren’t everything, and the true evidence of the show’s quality can be seen in how beloved and influential it has remained for over half a century.
Lucy Didn’t Think She was Funny
Although Lucille has undoubtedly achieved the status of a comedy icon, she was humble about her success. According to The Los Angeles Times, Ball didn’t even think she was particularly funny. Instead, she pointed out that the writers and directors on the show were the ones responsible for creating all the show’s jokes.
The hilarious redhead did, however, concede that she was brave. Bravery is what propelled Ball from a long career in supporting parts in movies to starring in her own television series, back when being an actress in your 40s was “past your prime” and such a move was considered career suicide.
Lucy’s Sense of Humor Went Beyond the Show
Many famous comedians are quite somber in real life when the focus isn’t on them. However, Lucille Ball was every bit as funny off-screen as she was on it. Her daughter, Lucie, referred to her as a clown. Desi Jr. called her witty, comparing her sense of humor to the more subdued humor of Will Rogers.
Lucille had such a keen sense of humor that she used it to poke fun at even the most difficult parts of her life. For example, she once suggested that Desi’s biography be called “Too Many Girls,” in a nod to both the film on which they had met and the cheating that ultimately drove the couple apart.
Lucille’s Mom Came to Watch Her Film Every Episode
Lucille was a very devoted mother to her son and daughter. She was inspired by her own devoted mother, DeDe. DeDe was so proud of her successful daughter that she would attend the filming of every single I Love Lucy episode.
She happily sat in the studio audience, adding her joyous reactions and infectious laughter to the show’s funny moments. In fact, I Love Lucy pioneered the practice of filming in front of a live studio audience as well as filming with multiple cameras, both of which are still done by sitcoms today.
Lucille was a Big Fan of ‘Three’s Company’
Perhaps it should come as no surprise given Lucille’s penchant for physical comedy, but she was a big fan of John Ritter and Three’s Company. Her appreciation for the show was so great that she even appeared on a “best of” episode during the sixth season, where she looked back at some of the show’s great scenes and episodes.
In turn, Ritter was also a huge fan of hers. He got the opportunity to guest star on an episode of her 1980s TV show Life with Lucy. Ritter plays an exaggerated version of himself, stopping by the hardware store before winding up at Lucy’s family home.
Lucy Considered Betty White a Member of Her Family
Lucille Ball made a lot of famous friends over the years in film and television. One friend especially close to her heart was Betty White. Lucille was just over a decade older than Betty when the two funny ladies met in the mid-1950s, and a friendship soon blossomed.
The two became even closer when they both got married, and the two married couples would hang out together. Ball and White considered each other to be family, and their friendship continued to deepen for decades.
She Appeared in Over 50 Films
While Lucille will forever be a legend for her contributions to television, she has her place in film history, too. Before she became known as the zany, showbiz-loving red-headed wife of Ricky Ricardo, she had supporting roles and small parts in dozens of movies. In fact, she appeared in more than 50 movies.
Lucille began her film career in the 1933 movie, Roman Scandals, where she played an uncredited chorus girl. From there, she became a contract player for RKO Pictures, which landed her roles in films with both the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers. She even auditioned to play Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, but lost the role to Vivien Leigh.