“Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!” She sure does. After all, how does one create the most watched television program, define the sitcom genre, invent reruns, and cement yourself as a comedy icon? Lucille Ball and her ex-husband Desi Arnaz accomplished all that with their show I Love Lucy.
Apart from concocting many industry standards from scratch, the superstar duo made people laugh for over half a century. But building their empire wasn’t always fun. There were a lot of behind the scenes obstacles they had to face along the way…
1. Lucy wasn’t a real redhead: Despite the show being black and white, Lucille Ball was famous for her shock of red hair. A natural brunette, for Hollywood, she started out a blonde, but adopted her iconic ginger locks for a role in Dubarry was a Lady.
2. A ghost inspired the TV show: At first, Lucille was conflicted about transitioning from movies to television. She didn’t want to do it. But in a dream, a deceased actress and friend of Lucille’s, Carole Lombard, came to her and convinced her to “take a chance” on her TV gig.
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3. Ricky was almost Larry: If things had gone a different way, the iconic duo that was Lucy and Ricky would have been Lucy and — Larry. Thank goodness they passed on the alliteration. Otherwise, Weird ‘Al’ Yankovic wouldn’t have been able to write his parody hit “Ricky” after the cheerleading anthem “Micky.”
I Love Lucy
4. I Love Lucy had the first live audience: The first sitcom ever recorded in front of a live studio audience. Canned laughter was standard at that point, but Lucy producers used the real stuff. Desi said Lucille always performed at her best in front of a real audience.
5. Desi had a beautiful mind: When acting opposite a powerhouse like Lucille, you’ve got to keep your game sharp. Desi had a special skill that gave him a stellar showbiz reputation : his photographic memory. Staffers recall Desi requiring just one read-through of a script to memorize every word!
6. Forgetful Fred: Meanwhile, William Frawley, who played the often unaware Fred Mertz, struggled to remember his lines. His forgetfulness would frustrate him so badly, he was known to rip out script pages in fury. He may be the first actor to complain about getting too many lines…
The Famous People
7. Lucy always committed to the bit: In the episode “Lucy’s Italian Movie” she grape stomps and the crowd roars. All the while, Lucille had been choking on a grape but ignored it to finish the scene. After cameras cut, she indicated she was in distress and the crew swooped in to help her.
8. Cover girl Lucy: No other woman ever held the comedic torch the way Lucille Ball did when she catapulted to stardom. She made the cover of TV Guide a record number of times, appearing on an incredible 39 issues. This included the magazine’s very first publication.
9. Lucy hated Vitameatavegamin: In this famous episode, Lucy downs most of a bottle of a health tonic with high alcohol content and winds up pretty buzzed. In lieu of the tonic, Lucille was actually gulping down apple pectin. Perhaps the lingering taste hampered Lucille’s fondness of the episode; she didn’t find it funny.
10. Write what you know: Desi and Lucille took this rule pretty literally since most of their show was an interpretation of their marriage, including onscreen buds, Fred and Ethel. The couple was based on their real-life friends, Dezi’s brother Fred Arnaz, and Broadway star Ethel Merman.
Ricks Real Reel
11. No ad-libs allowed: Actors improv skills have provided some iconic one-liners, but not on I Love Lucy. Every single word uttered was scripted. There was a strict no ad-lib rule. They even had cue cards to ensure the cast didn’t deviate from the intended lines.
12. Stage mom: “Uh-Oh!,” followed by a sweet chuckle, can be heard from off-camera in reaction to Lucy’s silly antics in many episodes. The voice behind these reactions is none other than Lucille Ball’s mother, Désirée “DeDe” Ball. Her mom was present for every single shoot.
13. Lucille and Desi spared no expense: They created their series and called the shots. So, it was important their show represented them and their vision in the best way — that meant high-quality film. It was the first television program shot live on 35 mm film.
14. The show made them millionaires: Their expensive gamble with the film more than paid off. Desilu Productions, the couple’s company, earned a walloping 40 million from the investment. In today’s economy, that’s 256 million. They’ve got some spendin’ to do!
15. Everyone watched Lucy: Millions of homes tuned in every week to watch. By today’s standards, that might seem like small potatoes, but in the ’50s, it was a huge deal. In fact, water and telephone usage dipped dramatically while the program aired and department stores closed early due to lack of customers.
16. Racial concerns: Initially, CBS didn’t think an audience would want to see an “All-American” girl married to a Cuban man, but Ball and Arnaz proved the studio wrong. Lucy was the only character allowed to joke about Ricky’s accent. If other characters made fun of the way he spoke, the audience was silent.
17. Go Yanks: Even though he had a reputation as a curmudgeon, William Frawley had a bit of a soft spot for America’s favorite pastime. In his contract, it stated that he would be excused from work if the New York Yankees were playing in a World Series game.
18. Besties: Vivian Vance played the perfect sidekick to Lucille, and they were lifelong pals and collaborators. But it wasn’t a fast friendship. Lucille felt Vivian was too attractive to play the intentionally “homely” Ethel and felt threatened by her. Quickly, those insecurities vanished, and as their chemistry grew onset, so did their bond off-screen.
19. No noms for Desi: Out of all the acclaim the show received, an Emmy nomination evaded only one of the main cast: Desi Arnaz. With a staggering 13 nominations, Lucille was the most acknowledged and secured 5 wins. Vivian won the first-ever Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress, and William was nominated 5 times, but never managed a win.
Lucu_Fan / Flickr
20. New phone who dis?: It’s hard to resist dialing a phone number featured on the big screen. But, not so fun for the innocent owners of those numbers. During the run of the show, the Riccardo’s went through two numbers and the Mertzes totaled out at four.
21. Comedy bonus: Big laughs were always the goal, so the cast turned the quest for hilarity into a game. Anytime an actor got the audience to burst into spontaneous applause, they got to pocket a silver dollar once the scene ended.
22. Desi invented reruns: After the birth of their son in 1953, in the middle of season two of their show, Desi halted production. He wanted his wife to have some time to recoup and convinced the network to re-air previous episodes.
23. Lucille Ball’s legend: Not only was she wickedly funny, but Lucy was also a gifted businesswoman. After her divorce from Desi, she bought out his share of their production company. Ownership of Desilu Productions marked her as the very first woman to run a major television studio.