Television in the 1950s brings to mind clean-cut characters living uncomplicated lives, maybe learning a lesson or two. Though real-life couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz brought one of that era's most beloved shows to television screens, the real story behind I Love Lucy proved messy and convoluted. Married for 20 years and on-screen as the Ricardos for six, Lucy and Desi's relationship remains one of Hollywood's most fascinating love stories, filled with as much pain as passion.
A young Ball worked her way up from childhood without a father and adolescence spent mostly with her grandparents. In contrast, Arnaz grew up in a wealthy family in Cuba and fled with them to Miami after the Cuban Revolution. Despite their differences, Ball and Arnaz fell in love soon after meeting in Hollywood. Along with the ups and downs most couples experience, their marriage ultimately disintegrated due to hectic work schedules, infidelity, and alcohol. Despite this, the couple always maintained their love for one another, even years after their divorce. They left behind one of the most watched television shows in history, which has remained in the public consciousness, thanks to reruns.
Though the on-screen married couple on I Love Lucy was a version of the real-life couple, the true Arnaz and Ball stories prove their relationship was much more complicated.
- Photo: CBS
Arnaz's Problems With Alcohol Reportedly Fueled His Problems With Women
Arnaz enjoyed alcohol - at times, a little too much. Despite his behavior off-set, he remained professional on set. Writer Bob Weiskopf recalled, "We once worked very late, and I started to look at my watch. Desi says, 'Jesus, I'm sorry, amigos. Who'd like something to drink?' No thought as to whether anyone might like a sandwich. Just, 'My God! Going all this time without a cocktail!'"
Some claim alcohol further fueled his desire for women, and Arnaz allegedly often hired sex workers when drunk. According to Associated Press reporter Jim Bacon, "He wouldn't call in one [pro], he'd call in 18. One night when I was with him in Palm Springs, he didn't do anything but sit on the floor naked and sing 'Babaloo' with all these [women] around."
According to others, Arnaz would occasionally go off and drink alone, wanting Ball to believe he was with other women just to hurt her. One night Arnaz's behavior caught up to him, and police arrested him after he decided to serenade streetwalkers on Hollywood Boulevard drunkenly.
Ball Had To Fight For Arnaz To Appear As Her Husband On TV
When Ball and Arnaz married in 1940, segregation was still legal in many areas of the US. As a mixed-race couple with a six-year age difference, some took offense to their relationship. When Ball demanded that Arnaz play her husband on I Love Lucy, the producers refused at first. They supposedly had no interest in an American girl marrying a Cuban man and thought the audience wouldn't buy their relationship. Producers held concerns about Arnaz's accent as well, as writer Bob Weiskopf stated, "What the hell do we want with a Latin bandleader who can't speak English?"
To test their show idea and public interest, Arnaz and Ball created a live show for the vaudeville circuit. They toured the country, allowing Arnaz to sing and Ball to show her comedy skills by breaking into his act. They even put together a pilot episode, produced with their own $5,000. Eventually, CBS decided to give the couple a shot with I Love Lucy. They had recycled a few of the skits from the vaudeville show for the sitcom.
Ball Demanded Arnaz Star In Her TV Show To Keep Him At Home
Even after their marriage, separate work schedules often kept Arnaz and Ball apart. For her acting career, Ball had to be in makeup by 3 or 4 am, about the same time Arnaz returned home from work as a bandleader. Both this and their personality differences led others to assume their marriage would quickly fail.
"Nobody gave it more than two weeks. There were bets all over the country, with astronomical odds against us," Arnaz said. While they bought and fixed up a home together to attempt a normal married life, Ball and Arnaz's conflicting schedules almost proved the pessimists correct.
In 1950, CBS began developing Ball's radio series My Favorite Husband as a television show with Ball to reprise her role. Ball realized it was a golden opportunity to capture her husband's time and attention, demanding that Arnaz play her husband. One writer explained, "She wanted him because she knew that if he went on the road with the band, he'd be catting around all the time. She wanted him at home, where she felt the marriage would have a better chance of lasting."
Arnaz And Ball Argued Frequently, And Sometimes Heatedly
Arnaz and Ball's differences caused them to argue frequently. "They were fighting all the time when we were growing up. There was a lot of anger and screaming," remembered their daughter Lucie Arnaz. The couple kept their conflicts private and refrained from arguing on set. Their home life was another matter, and to save money from angrily retreating to a hotel, Arnaz built himself a guest house in the backyard. Family members and friends visiting the home sometimes heard screaming, cursing, and glass shattering coming from behind closed doors.
However, Arnaz and Ball soon reconciled after their disagreements. According to one story, Arnaz once became so angry that he decided to move back in with his mother, but returned a few days later and stood in the front yard crying until Ball came out to console him.