Fans of Lucy Ricardo may remember her as a zany television housewife fond of creating misunderstandings on I Love Lucy, but what was Lucille Ball really like? While there are many I Love Lucy behind-the-scene stories about Ball being difficult and tough to work with, there are just as many memories about Ball's kindness towards others and her genuine willingness to do anything to entertain people. For an actress who forged new ground in comedy, ran her own major television studio, and remains beloved years after her passing, Ball clearly touched hearts and made an impact during her career.
After several years of minor roles in Hollywood, Ball shot to fame after creating and starring in I Love Lucy. Her marriage to Desi Arnaz also played a big part in her career, as well as her entire life. After Lucy ended, and she and Arnaz divorced, Ball learned how to do things on her own. She began running Desilu Productions and continued her comedic acting career by creating several other shows for herself, including The Lucy Show, Here's Lucy, and Life With Lucy. While she learned how to create her own career during a time when women were still expected not to assert themselves in the workplace, Ball's attitude towards her work stood out as different. So what was Lucille Ball like on a set? Whether she was feared or loved by her co-stars and production crew, Ball was a woman who knew what she wanted and wasn't afraid to make it known.
- Photo: The Lucy Show/CBS
Carol Burnett first met Ball when Ball came backstage after an off-Broadway performance. Several years later, Burnett asked Ball to appear on her television special since she needed a "big star." Burnett's awestruck respect for Ball eventually turned into a strong friendship, and Burnett appeared on several episodes of The Lucy Show.
"She never censored herself," Burnett remembered of working with her friend. "Whatever she said, she was thinking and it came out." Burnett didn't consider this a problem, however, since "[Ball] was never picking on anybody. It was just the way she was, and they would lay their lives down for her."
Burnett was also impressed at the "well oiled machine" that was The Lucy Show. On I Love Lucy, Ball acted solely as a performer and let Desi Arnaz handle the rest. After they divorced, however, Ball had to assert herself. "She had to get tough because nobody would listen to 'Crazy Little Lucy'... Not tough but...truthful," Burnett recalled, defending her friend. "It was unheard of for the women to do that... If a woman did, she was a b*tch. If a guy did, he knew what he wanted."
- Photo: I Love Lucy/CBS
Keith Thibodeaux first met Ball as a child when he played Little Ricky on I Love Lucy. Not only did he get to know Ball on the set, Thibodeaux spent time around her off set at her home as he became friends with Ball and Arnaz's children. "She was enigmatic... very passionate, very complex, very energetic, and very tightly wound, and no nonsense," he recalled. However, he also recalled Ball's maternal side as she made the children Ovaltine and rubbed their backs to help them sleep. "But she... could be very soft and she had a soft side to her," Thibodeaux said. "And very loving, very sweet."
On set, Thibodeaux saw Ball's dedication to her work, as well as a temper that often flared. "You had to walk softly around her sometimes, if she wasn't feeling well that day or something," he remembered. "There would be a tenseness in the air. She had a temper. She would slam doors." Despite her occasional angry outburst, however, Thibodeaux knew there was more to Ball than her mood. "Lucy had a big heart and could be a joy to be around," he said, "but I was always pretty much in awe or scared of the lady, really."
- Photo: I Love Lucy/CBS
I Love Lucy's core writing team consisted of Bob Carroll, Jess Oppenheimer, and Madelyn Pugh Davis, the only woman. Ball wrote for all six seasons of the show and often came up with gags by acting them out herself. Prior to being hired to write for Lucy, Davis and Carroll worked on Ball's My Favorite Husband radio program, and Davis admired Ball's loyalty. "She always had people on the show she'd worked with before; she had the same help at her house for years," Davis recalled.
Ball's devotion to getting a laugh also amazed her. "She would do anything. There was nothing she wouldn't try," Davis said. "She'd work with any animal... if it was funny, that's all." Despite this, Davis noted Ball wasn't good at improvisation and required everything in the show to be scripted. "When she saw it and acted it out, then she would say it needs something here, it needs something there," Davis recalled.
- Photo: Here's Lucy/CBS
At the height of his popularity on The Odd Couple television show, Tony Randall made a guest appearance on Here's Lucy in a 1971 episode called "Lucy and the Mountain Climber," in which he plays a mountain climber whom Lucy thinks she can beat at climbing. He remembered noticing the temper and firmness many recall her displaying behind the scenes.
"A lot of people found her very, very tough to work with," he recalled. "She bossed everybody around and didn't spare anybody's feelings." However, he also saw Ball's attitude and dedication to making the best possible show as part of what made her such a comedic genius. "I didn't mind that because she knew what she was doing," Randall said. "If someone just says, 'Do this!' it's awful if they're wrong. If they're right, it just saves a lot of time. And she was always right."