Few shows broke as many boundaries as I Love Lucy. The show was one of the first to show an interracial couple, the real-life husband and wife Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It was also the first scripted sitcom to be filmed in front of a live studio audience and the first to feature an ensemble cast. While Ball often stole the show with her wacky, side-splitting antics, Arnaz was an accomplished, successful musician in his own right, and he had one important advantage that made him a great actor.
The real Ricky Ricardo
In I Love Lucy, Arnaz plays Ricky Ricardo, the counterpart to Lucy, played by his wife in real life, Ball. Ricardo was a fictional version of himself, a young, up and coming singer and bandleader trying to break into show business. He was often quick-tempered, and when he was particularly exasperated with his wife, he’d resort to a rapid-fire string of Spanish.
In real life, Arnaz was born to a wealthy political family in Cuba, but they fled to Miami after the 1933 Cuban Revolution. His career took off after his orchestra introduced the Conga line dance to American audiences, and he was cast in a Broadway musical called Too Many Girls in 1939.
The musical was eventually made into a film, where Arnaz and Ball met and fell in love. The two married on November 30, 1940.
Arnaz almost wasn’t in ‘I Love Lucy’
While Arnaz continued his rigorous touring schedule, Ball remained in Hollywood, where her acting career was thriving. She started appearing on a radio show called My Favorite Husband in 1948.
It was so popular that CBS approached Ball about turning it into a TV show. She had just one condition: that Arnaz would play her husband on the show.
The network was hesitant because mixed marriages were very uncommon on television at the time, but Ball stood her ground. In order to prove the network executives wrong and show that they could be a great comedy team, the duo created a vaudeville act that they performed with Arnaz’s orchestra.
It was a huge hit with audiences and enough to convince CBS that it was worth the risk, and the show began production in 1951.
Arnaz had a secret acting advantage
I Love Lucy had great confidence in their writing team. So much so that no ad-libbing or going off-script was allowed.
The actors performed every word for word, exactly as it was written. While remembering so many lines seems like a difficult task, it was a breeze for Arnaz because he had a photographic memory, reported the Los Angeles Times. He could reportedly read his script just once and then deliver his lines perfectly on stage when it was time to film.
‘I Love Lucy’ made reruns possible
At the time, most television shows were filmed in New York City, but Arnaz and Ball were insistent about staying in Hollywood. This was long before the days of cable television or streaming content, so live shows could only be broadcast so far.
They were recorded using low-quality kinescopes and then sent to stations across the country. Arnaz suggested using three cameras to shoot on 35-millimeter film. Not only did this allow the show to film in much higher quality, but it also meant that each episode was preserved permanently in a format that could be easily replayed.
This marked the start of rerun syndication and also made Arnaz and Ball millionaires because their production company maintained complete ownership of the show.
I Love Lucy was the most-watched TV show in the United States for four of its six seasons and remains extremely popular with audiences today.