How Lucille Ball Took on Desi Arnaz’s Job After Their Divorce: ‘That’s When They Put the ‘S’ on the End of My Last Name’
I Love Lucy is still considered as one of the greatest sitcoms in television history. Starring the comedy icon Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz, the series made the pair America’s most cherished couple as well as Hollywood gold. Arnaz handled most of the behind-the-scenes work and management of their company, Desilu Productions, while Ball concentrated on bringing in the laughs.
Their 20-year marriage resulted in divorce in 1960. After their split, Ball had to take on Arnaz’s role in their company due to his continuing alcoholism. The I Love Lucy star explained to fellow comic legend Carol Burnett how she earned the respect of her staff.
Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett were close friends
When Carol Burnett appeared in the Off-Broadway play Once Upon a Mattress in 1959, Ball happened to be in the audience. The I Love Lucy star was so impressed with Burnett’s performance, she stopped by her dressing room after the show and gave her a most generous offer: “Kid, if you ever need me for anything, call me.”
After that initial meeting, the two forged a lifelong friendship. They guest-starred on each others’ shows, and Ball even threw Burnett a baby shower when she was expecting her daughter Jody in 1966. Every year, Ball sent Burnett flowers on her birthday with a card reading simply, “Happy Birthday, Kid.”
Burnett saw Ball as a mentor through the years, especially when she launched The Carol Burnett Show. The Emmy winner considered the famous redhead a great performer and a smart business owner.
“Lucy had a reputation for being somewhat ‘tough’ when it came to running her show,” Burnett wrote in her 2016 memoir In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox. “‘Tough could be a compliment if you were talking about a Milton Berle or a Jackie Gleason, but back in the 60s it was just the opposite if you happened to be talking about a woman in the same business. I saw her as simply being honest.“
‘I Love Lucy’ star and Carol Burnett had similarities
In her book, Burnett recalled a conversation she had with Ball when she was doing a guest spot on The Carol Burnett Show. The comedy legend explained to Burnett how Arnaz was the one in charge behind the camera while on I Love Lucy.
“‘Y,know, kid, when I was married to [Arnaz], I never had to worry about the writing, or any of the inner workings of the show,'” the variety show star remembered Ball saying. “‘Desi did all that. He ran the show. He was the boss.’ She went on to say that all she had to do was come in on Mondays, read the polished script, and simply be ‘Lucy.’ Desi took care of all the rest.”
Burnett totally related to what Ball shared. Her husband, Joe Hamilton, often served in the same capacity on The Carol Burnett Show as Arnaz did on I Love Lucy. The CBS star realized she needed to be more assertive when it came to running her series rather than leaving all the management duties to her spouse.
“I was never one to make waves with the writers or the crew,” Burnett wrote. “I was totally non confrontational. Actually, you could say I was chicken. If a sketch wasn’t working, I would often wind up apologizing to the writers when asking for a little help. Lucy understood, exactly.”
Lucille Ball gave Carol Burnett some words of wisdom
Ball shared with Burnett how she stepped up to take on responsibilities of her production company after her split from Arnaz.
“She told me about the first day she had to do Desi’s job,” Burnett explained. “She and Desi had parted and Lucy was embarking on a new project: The Lucy Show, starring Lucille Ball. There was a table reading of the show that first Monday, and the script was… no good. … [Ball said], ‘I went into my office, and just sat there for over an hour, trying to figure out a nice way to handle the whole thing.'”
After realizing she had just be blunt with her writers, Ball was able to resolve the issue quickly and effectively. Once she got over her fear of being direct, Ball earned more respect and results.
“She came to the conclusion that there really wasn’t a nice way to do it, and went back to face the writers,” Burnett wrote. “She screwed up the courage to tell them exactly what she thought of the script, not mincing her words, but being brutally honest.”
Ball told Burnett, “‘And, kid, that’s when they put the ‘s’ on the end of my last name!'”
After sharing this story in her memoir, Burnett added, “I loved Lucy. She died on my birthday in 1989. Her flowers arrived late that afternoon, ‘Happy Birthday, Kid.'”