comedian, film, television, stage and radio actress, model, film and television executive, and star of the sitcoms I Love Lucy, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show, Here's Lucy and Life With Lucy. One of the most popular and influential stars in America during her lifetime, with one of Hollywood's longest careers, especially on television, Ball began acting in the 1930s, becoming both a radio actress and B-movie star in the 1940s, and then a television star during the 1950s. She was still making films in the 1960s and 1970s.
Ball received thirteen Emmy Award nominations and four wins. She was the recipient of the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1979, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center Honors in 1986 and the Governors Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 1989.
In 1929, Ball landed work as a model and later began her performing career on Broadway using the stage name Dianne Belmont. She appeared in many small movie roles in the 1930s as a contract player for RKO Radio Pictures. Ball was labeled as the "Queen of the Bs" (referring to her many roles in B-films). In 1951, Ball was pivotal in the creation of the television series I Love Lucy. The show co-starred her then husband, Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo and Vivian Vance and William Frawley as Ethel and Fred Mertz, the Ricardos' landlords and friends. The show ended in 1957 after 180 episodes. They then changed the format a little - lengthening the time of the show from 30 minutes to 60 minutes (the first one went 75 mins), adding some characters, altering the storyline somewhat, and renaming the show from "I Love Lucy", to "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour", which ran for three seasons (1957–1960) and 13 episodes. Ball went on to star in two more successful television series: The Lucy Show, which ran on CBS from 1962 to 1968 (156 Episodes), and Here's Lucy from 1968 to 1974 (144 episodes). Her last attempt at a television series was a 1986 show called Life with Lucy - which failed miserably after 8 episodes aired although 13 were produced.
Ball met and eloped with Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz in 1940. On July 17, 1951, almost 40 years old, Ball gave birth to their first child, Lucie Désirée Arnaz. A year and a half later, Ball gave birth to their second child, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV, known as Desi Arnaz, Jr. Ball and Arnaz divorced on May 4, 1960.
On April 26, 1989, Ball died of a dissecting aortic aneurysm, at age 77. At the time of her death, she had been married to her second husband, standup comedian and business partner Gary Morton, for twenty-eight years
Early life and careerBall was born to Henry Durrell Ball (September 16, 1886 – February 19, 1915) and Desiree "DeeDee" Evelyn Hunt (September 21, 1892 – July 20, 1977) in Jamestown, New York. Although Lucy was born in Jamestown, New York, she told many people that she was born in Butte, Montana. At age 3, her family moved to Anaconda, Montana and then to Wyandotte, Michigan. Her family was Baptist; her father was of Scottish descent, and his mother was Mary Ball. Her mother was of French, Irish and English descent. Her genealogy can be traced back to the earliest settlers in the colonies.
Her father, a telephone lineman for Anaconda Copper, was frequently transferred because of his occupation, and within three years of her birth, Lucille had moved many times, from Jamestown to Anaconda, and then to Trenton. While DeeDee Ball was pregnant with her second child, Frederick, Henry Ball contracted typhoid fever and died in February 1915. Ball recalls little from the day her father died, only fleeting memories. A picture fell, and a bird got trapped in the house. Ever since that day she had an intense bird phobia.
After her father died, Ball and her brother Fred Henry Ball (July 17, 1915 - February 5, 2007) were raised by her mother and grandparents in Celoron, New York a summer resort village on Lake Chautauqua just west of Jamestown. Her grandfather, Fred Hunt, was an eccentric who also 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.
Four years after the death of her father, Ball’s mother DeeDee remarried. While her new step-father, Edward Peterson, and mother went to look for work in another city, Ball was left in the care of her new step-father’s parents. Ball’s new guardians were a puritanical Swedish couple who were so opposed to frivolity that they banished all mirrors from the house except for one over the bathroom sink. When the young Ball was caught admiring herself in it she was severely chastised for being so vain. This period of time affected Ball so deeply that in later life she claimed that it lasted seven or eight years, but in reality, it was probably less than one. One good thing did come out of DeeDee's new marriage. Her new husband Ed was a Shriner. When his organization needed female entertainers for the chorus line of their next show, he encouraged his twelve-year-old stepdaughter to audition. While Ball was onstage she began to realize that if one was seeking praise and recognition this was a brilliant way to receive it. Her appetite for recognition had thus been awakened at an early age, In 1927 her family suffered misfortune when their house and furnishings were taken away in a legal judgement after a neighborhood boy was accidentally shot and paralyzed by someone target-shooting in their yard, under Ball's grandfather's supervision. The family then moved into a small apartment in Jamestown.
In 1927, Ball dated a gangster's son by the name of Johnny DeVita. DeDe was unhappy with the relationship, but did nothing about it. She expected the romance to burn out in a few weeks. When that didn't happen DeDe took advantage of Lucille's desire to be in show business and "allowed" her to go to the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York City. There, Ball attended with fellow actress Bette Davis. Ball went home a few weeks later when drama coaches told her that she "had no future at all as a performer".
Ball was determined to prove her teachers wrong, and returned to New York City in 1929. She landed work as a fashion model. Her career was thriving when she became ill with rheumatoid arthritis and was unable to work for two years. She moved to New York City once again in 1932 to resume her pursuit of a career as an actress, and had some success as a fashion model for designer Hattie Carnegie and as the Chesterfield cigarette girl. She began on Broadway as Dianne Belmont. She 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 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 Radio Pictures, including a two-reel comedy short with the Three Stooges (Three Little Pigskins, 1934) and a movie with the Marx Brothers (Room Service, 1938). She can also be seen as one of the featured models in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Roberta (1935) and briefly as the flower girl in Top Hat (1935), as well as a brief supporting role at the beginning of Follow the Fleet (1936) another Astaire-Rogers film. Ginger Rogers was a distant cousin of Ball's on her mother's side of the family. She and Rogers played aspiring actresses in the hit film Stage Door (1937) co-starring Katharine Hepburn. In 1936 she also landed the role she hoped would lead her to Broadway, in the Bartlett Cormack play Hey Diddle Diddle, a comedy set in a duplex apartment in Hollywood. The play premiered in Princeton, New Jersey on January 21, 1937 with Ball playing the part of Julie Tucker, "one of three roommates coping with neurotic directors, confused executives, and grasping stars who interfere with the girls' ability to get ahead." The play received good reviews, but there were problems, chiefly with its star, Conway Tearle, who was in poor health. Cormack wanted to replace him, but the producer, Anne Nichols, said the fault lay with the character and insisted that the part needed to be reshaped and rewritten. The two were unable to agree on a solution. The play was scheduled to open on Broadway at the Vanderbilt Theatre, but closed after one week in Washington, D.C. when Tearle suddenly became gravely ill. Ball was signed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 1940s, but she never achieved major stardom from her appearance in those films.
Fay Wray—starring in a number of B-movies, such as 1939's Five Came Back. Like many budding starlets Ball picked up radio work to earn side income as well as gain exposure. In 1937 she appeared as a regular on The Phil Baker Show. When that completed its run in 1938, Ball joined the cast of The Wonder Show, starring future Wizard of Oz tin man Jack Haley. It was here that she began her fifty year professional relationship with Gale Gordon, who served as the show's announcer. The Wonder Show only lasted one season, with the final episode airing on April 7, 1939.
In 1940, Ball met Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz while filming the film version of the Rodgers and Hart stage hit Too Many Girls. At first, Arnaz was not fond of Lucy. When they met again later that day, the two connected immediately and eloped the same year. 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. That same year, Ball appeared opposite Henry Fonda in The Big Street, in which she plays a paralyzed nightclub singer and Fonda portrays a busboy who idolizes her.
Ball filed for a divorce in 1944. Shortly after Ball obtained an interlocutory decree of divorce, however, she reconciled with Arnaz. Ball and Arnaz were only six years apart in age 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, both claiming a 1914 birth date until this was disproved.
I Love Lucy and DesiluMy Favorite Husband, a radio program for CBS Radio. The program was successful, and CBS asked her to develop it for television. 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 I Love Lucy on their lineup, 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 their divorce, Ball bought out Arnaz's share of the studio, and she proceeded to function as a very active studio head. Desilu and I Love Lucy pioneered a number of methods still in use in television production today such as filming before a live studio audience with a number of cameras, and distinct sets adjacent to each other. During this time Ball taught a thirty-two week comedy workshop at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. Ball is quoted as saying, "You cannot teach someone comedy, either they have it or they don't."
When the show premiered, most shows were aired live from New York City studios to Eastern and Central Time Zone audiences, and captured by kinescope for broadcast later to the West Coast. The kinescope picture was inferior to film, and as a result the West Coast broadcasts were inferior to those seen elsewhere in the country. Ball and Arnaz wanted to remain in their Los Angeles home, but the time zone logistics made that broadcast norm impossible. Prime time in L.A. was too late at night on the East Coast to air a major network series, meaning the majority of the TV audience would be seeing not only the inferior picture of kinescopes but seeing them at least a day later.
Sponsor Philip Morris did not want to show day-old kinescopes to the major markets on the East Coast, yet neither did they want to pay for the extra cost filming, processing and editing would require, pressuring Ball and Arnaz to relocate to New York City. Ball and Arnaz offered to take a pay cut to finance filming, on the condition that their company, Desilu, would retain the rights to that film once it was aired. CBS relinquished the show rights back to Desilu after initial 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. In fact, while other celebrated shows of the period exist only in incomplete sets of kinescopes mostly too degraded to show to subsequent generations of television viewers, I Love Lucy has virtually never gone out of syndication since it began, seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world over the past half century. The success of Ball and Arnaz's gamble was instrumental in drawing television production from New York to Hollywood for the next several decades.
Desilu 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 (1927) 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. (There was an attempt to adapt the show for radio; the cast and writers adapted the memorable "Breaking the Lease" episode—in which the Ricardos and Mertzes fall out over an argument, the Ricardos threaten to move, but they're stuck in a firm lease—for a radio audition disc that never aired but has survived.) 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 production breaks they starred together in feature films: Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Alexander Hall's Forever, Darling (1956).
Desilu produced several other popular shows, most notably Our Miss Brooks (starring Ball's 1937 Stage Door co-star Eve Arden), The Untouchables, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible. Many other shows, particularly My Three Sons in its first seven of twelve seasons, 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.
Testimony Before the House Committee on Un-American ActivitiesWhen Ball registered to vote in 1936, she listed her party affiliation as Communist. (She was registered as a Communist in 1938 as well.) In order to sponsor the Communist Party's 1936 candidate for the California State Assembly's 57th District, Ball signed a certificate stating "I am registered as affiliated with the Communist Party." The same year, she was appointed to the State Central Committee of the Communist Party of California, according to records of the California Secretary of State. In 1937, Hollywood writer Rena Vale, an admitted former Communist, attended a Communist Party new members' class at Ball's home, according to Vale's testimony before the United States House of Representatives' Special Committee on Un-American Activities, on July 22, 1940. Two years later, Vale reaffirmed this testimony in a sworn deposition:
Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign for re-election. She also stated that in the 1952 US Presidential Election, she voted for Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
On September 4, 1953, Ball met privately with HUAC investigator William A. Wheeler in Hollywood and gave him sealed testimony. She stated that she had registered to vote as a Communist "or intended to vote the Communist Party ticket" in 1936 at her socialist grandfather's insistence. She stated she "at no time intended to vote as a Communist."
J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, named "Lucy and Dezi" [sic] among his "favorites of the entertainment world." Immediately before the filming of episode 68 ("The Girls Go Into Business") of I Love Lucy, Arnaz, instead of his usual audience warm-up, told the audience about Lucy and her grandfather. Arnaz quipped: "The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that's not legitimate." Then, he presented his wife and she received a standing ovation from the audience.
Children and divorceLucie Désirée 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 episode's official title was "Lucy Is Enceinte", borrowing the French word for pregnant; however, episode titles never appeared on the show. The birth made the first cover of TV Guide in January 1953.
Ball's business instincts 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. Ball was outspoken against the relationship that Desi Jr. had with Liza Minnelli. She was quoted as saying, "I miss Liza, but you cannot domesticate Liza." Her close friends in the business included Ginger Rogers, Vivian Vance, Mary Wickes and Carole Cook.
In October 1956, Ball, Vivian Vance, Desi Arnaz, and William Frawley all appeared on a Bob Hope special on NBC, including a spoof of I Love of Lucy, the only time all four stars were together on a color telecast.
By the end of the 1950s, Desilu had become a large company, causing a good deal of stress for both Ball and Arnaz; his increased drinking further compounded matters. On May 4, 1960, just two months after filming the final episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, the couple divorced. Until his death in 1986, however, Arnaz and Ball remained friends and often spoke very fondly of each other. Her real-life divorce indirectly found its way into her later television series, as she was always cast as a single woman.
The following year, Ball did a musical on Broadway, Wildcat, co-starring Paula Stewart. It was Stewart who introduced her to second husband Gary Morton, a Borscht Belt stand-up comic who was thirteen years her junior. Morton claimed he had never seen an episode of I Love Lucy due to his hectic work schedule.That marked the beginning of a thirty-year friendship between Lucy and Paula Stewart. 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.
Later careerThe 1960 Broadway musical Wildcat ended its run 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 (1968), and the musical Mame (1974), 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 appeared on the Dick Cavett show in 1974 and spoke of her history and life with Arnaz. She revealed how she felt about other actors and actresses as well as her love for Arnaz. She continued by telling Cavett that the success to her life was, "getting rid of what was wrong and replacing it with what is right", talking about her divorce from Arnaz and marriage to Morton.
Ball also revealed in this interview that the strangest thing to ever happen to her was after she had some dental work completed and after placing lead fillings in her teeth, she started hearing radio stations in her head. She explained coming home one night from the studio and as she passed one area, she heard what she thought was morse code or a "tapping". She stated that "as I backed up it got stronger. The next morning, I reported it to the authorities and upon investigation, they found a Japanese radio transmitter that had been buried and was actively transmitting codes back to the Japanese." The extraordinary theory that dental fillings could pick up radio signals would ultimately be tested and debunked on the TV show Mythbusters nearly thirty years later.
Ball was originally considered by Frank Sinatra for the role of Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate. Director/producer John Frankenheimer, however, had worked with Angela Lansbury in a mother role in another film and insisted on having her for the 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. A 1985 dramatic made-for-TV film about an elderly homeless woman, Stone Pillow, received mixed reviews. Her 1986 sitcom comeback Life With Lucy, costarring her longtime foil Gale Gordon and co-produced by Ball, Gary Morton, and prolific producer/former actor Aaron Spelling 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 public appearance, just one month before her death, was at the 1989 Academy Awards telecast in which she and fellow presenter, Bob Hope, were given a standing ovation.
DeathOn April 18, 1989, Ball was at her home in Beverly Hills when she complained of chest pains. An ambulance was called and she was rushed to the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She was diagnosed as having a dissecting aortic aneurysm and underwent heart surgery for nearly eight hours, receiving an aorta from a 27 year old male donor. The surgery was successful, and Ball began recovering, even walking around her room with little assistance. On April 26, shortly after 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 she died at approximately 05:47 PST. She was 77 years old. Her ashes were initially interred in Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, but in 2002 her children moved her remains to the family plot at Lake View Cemetery in Jamestown, New York, where Ball's mother, father, brother, and grandparents are buried.
Legacy and posthumous recognitionPresidential Medal of Freedom by President George H. W. Bush on July 6, 1989, and The Women's International Center's Living Legacy Award.
There is a Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center museum in Lucy's hometown of Jamestown, New York. The Little Theatre was renamed the Lucille Ball Little Theatre in her honor Ball was among Time magazine's 100 Most Important People of the Century.
On August 6, 2001, on what would have been her ninetieth birthday, the United States Postal Service honored her with a commemorative postage stamp as part of its Legends of Hollywood series. Ball appeared on the cover of TV Guide more than any other person; she appeared on thirty-nine covers, including the very first cover in 1953, with her baby son Desi Arnaz, Jr. TV Guide voted Lucille Ball as the Greatest TV Star of All Time and later it commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of I Love Lucy with eight collector covers celebrating memorable scenes from the show and in another instance they named I Love Lucy the second best television program in American history, after Seinfeld. Because of her liberated mindset and approval of the women's movement, Ball was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Finally, she was awarded the Legacy of Laughter award at the fifth Annual TV Land Awards in 2007. and I Love Lucy was named the Greatest TV Series by Hall of Fame Magazine. In November of that year, Lucille Ball was chosen as the second out of the 50 Greatest TV Icons, after Johnny Carson. In a poll done by the public, however, they chose her as the greatest icon.