Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz first appeared on I Love Lucy in 1951, but the world certainly hasn’t forgotten about their legendary love story. Today, nearly 70 years after the show became the first must-see comedy, Lucy and Desi’s legacy still lives on because they “intrigued people,” television critic Joe Neumaier exclusively tells Closer Weekly.
“It was a cross-cultural moment in the 1950s when a Cuban performer and his redheaded American wife became America’s sweethearts,” Joe shares in Closer’s latest issue, on newsstands now. The timeless show, starring Lucille and her real-life husband, Desi, Vivian Vance and William Frawley, continues to charm TV audiences on late-night networks and streaming services in several languages.
In the first broadcast episode of I Love Lucy, Lucy and Ethel disguise themselves as hillbillies and introduce themselves to their husbands as “Eunice” and “Ma.” But when Ricky’s well-intentioned performance of “Guadalajara” arouses the country girls’ amorous interests, he and Fred find themselves being chased around the Ricardos’ living room to avoid their embraces! To I Love Lucy fans, the scene is vintage comedy gold, but when it first aired in 1951, it changed television forever.
However, the show almost didn’t happen. After a decade in Hollywood as one of Samuel Goldwyn’s “Goldwyn Girls,” a nearly 40-year-old Lucy needed a job and found a new niche on radio starring opposite actor Richard Denning in My Favorite Husband.
CBS offered to take the show to television, but Lucy said she would only commit if her real-life bandleader husband, Desi, could be her costar. “TV started for me just as a means of keeping my husband Desi off the road,” Lucille once said. “He’d been on tour with his band since he got out of the Army, and we were in our 11th year of marriage and wanted to have children.”
The network bristled over hiring the Cuban-born performer and worried that Americans wouldn’t believe their marriage. “At the time, the consensus was, ‘What the hell do we want with a Latin bandleader who can’t speak English?’” Bob Weiskopf, a longtime I Love Lucy writer, has said. But the network eventually conceded. It proved to be one of the smartest moves anyone has ever made in television.
The role of Ricky wasn’t the only one that was almost played by another actor. Lucille wanted Gale Gordon, who would go on to costar in The Lucy Show, as Fred, but he was under contract to Our Miss Brooks. Another actor, James Gleason, demanded $3,500 an episode — too much for a new series — so the role went to showbiz veteran William Frawley. Meanwhile, two actresses, Bea Benaderet and Barbara Pepper — a pal of Lucy’s from her Goldwyn days — were in the running to play Ethel when Desi saw Vivian Vance in a play and hired her.
At first, Vivian’s sudden casting didn’t sit well with the series star. Lucille felt miffed that Desi hadn’t consulted her, and she was even more annoyed by how attractive Vivian was. However, her initial iciness thawed once she realized how nervous Vivian was about working in front of a live audience. “Lucy went out of her way to put me at ease,” Vivian once recalled. “She got me laughing so hard before my entrance that I didn’t have time to remember I was so frightened.”
The friendship between “the girls” would last well beyond the show’s run, but the same was not true for the actors who played the Mertzes. Vivian and William never found a way of bridging their dislike for each other, despite their comedic chemistry. The animosity reportedly began after William overheard Vivian complaining it didn’t seem realistic for Ethel to be married to an “old coot.” The tension between them spiraled after that insult and allegedly prevented Fred and Ethel from getting a spinoff series.
I Love Lucy was innovative in a number of ways. The first comedy series to shoot on film in Los Angeles, it pioneered the use of multiple cameras to capture the action before a live audience. It was also one of the first television shows where the female protagonists got the majority of the laughs. “Beautiful girls didn’t want to do some of the things I did — put on mudpacks and scream and run around and fall into pools,” said Lucille, who discovered her knack for physical comedy when she was still a film actress. “I didn’t mind getting messed up.”
Viewers tuned in each week to see what new trouble Lucy would find herself in, but the people who knew Lucille and Desi best confide that she was not naturally funny. “She was funny on television. She could take a funny script and turn it into gold, but as a person, my mom was not funny,” Lucie Arnaz exclusively tells Closer. “My dad had a sensational sense of humor. Humor is one of the most important things you can have in any situation, and he taught me that.”
Lucy and Desi’s comedy pairing worked. For four of its six seasons, I Love Lucy was the most-watched show in the United States. While it wasn’t the first to have a pregnancy plotline — and the word pregnant is never uttered — it was the most prominent TV series of the time to feature childbirth. A whopping 44 million viewers, or 72 percent of all American households that owned a TV, tuned in to watch the arrival of Little Ricky. (In a bizarre coincidence, Lucille went into labor and gave birth to Desi Arnaz Jr. 12 hours before the episode aired on January 19, 1953.) Keith Thibodeaux, 70, who played Little Ricky and is the show’s last living cast member, recalls how Lucy and Desi looked out for him on the set.
“I was in a scene and forgot my line and started stuttering,” Keith recalls to Closer. “Desi put me on his lap, and Lucy was there. He called me ‘Partner,’ trying to comfort me. They were trying to get the show done, but they also had a sensitivity that I was a child.” Lucy also forbade the crew from swearing around Keith and made a fuss on his birthdays. “I was like their third child,” he says.
After 70 years, the love for Lucy and Desi remains strong. A new drama, Being the Ricardos, is currently filming with Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as the legendary couple, with a script from writer/producer Aaron Sorkin. The action takes place in one week when the beloved stars face a crisis that could end their marriage and careers. “In the 1950s, audiences accepted the Ricardos in a way that was sort of advanced for the time,” says Neumaier. “They are still looked back upon as an intriguing couple today.”