‘I Love Lucy’s Lucille Ball Was Edgy About a Famous Stunt on the Show: ‘She Was Extremely Nervous’

Lucille Ball can definitively be called one of television’s greatest physical comedians. And nowhere better than I Love Lucy can the artist be seen at the prime of her craft.

The pioneering series displayed Ball doing the stunts that kept viewers in stitches, but it wasn’t always fun and games for her. The show’s creator revealed that one well-known stunt in particular uncharacteristically spooked her.

Lucille Ball is dressed in artist's garb in an episode of 'I Love Lucy', 1953
Lucille Ball in a scene from ‘I Love Lucy,’ 1953 | CBS via Getty Images

Ball needed a lot of rehearsal

The creator of ‘I Love Lucy’ was Jess Oppenheimer and in his book (compiled by his son Gregg Oppenheimer) I Love Lucy: The Untold Story, Jess wrote that it surprised him how much practice Ball needed for each episode.

“Desi and Lucy were diametrically different kinds of performers. Each Monday morning we would assemble for a first reading of that week’s script. Desi was always much better than Lucy at these first read-throughs.

“Lucy, by contrast, was the kind of performer who needed a lot of rehearsal. But after stumbling through that first read-through, she would take the material to the mat,” Oppenheimer wrote. “She fought with it, examined it, internalized it, and when it reappeared, she owned it. If she got enough rehearsal time, there just were no heights she couldn’t reach.”

When William Holden visited ‘I Love Lucy’

In the episode, Lucy, Ricky (played by her then-husband Desi Arnaz), Ethel (Vivian Vance), and Fred (William Frawley) have driven across the country. They finally arrive to their destination: Hollywood. They check into their hotel and with little pause, Ricky is off to “the studio” and the three pals decide to get the star-gazing started with a stop at The Brown Derby restaurant.

Actor William Holden is seated by a server directly next to them. Lucy can’t stop staring at Holden. He then turns the tables and stares at her. After a while, she can no longer take it, runs out of the restaurant, and slams into a server who dumps pie on Holden.

(L to R): William Frawley, Lucille Ball, and William Holden in the 'L.A. at Last!' episode of 'I Love Lucy'. The scene takes place in the Brown Derby, 1955.
(L to R): William Frawley, Lucille Ball, and William Holden in ‘I Love Lucy,’ 1955 | CBS/Getty Images

Unbeknownst to Lucy, Ricky decides to bring Holden by their hotel room later to meet her, at which time she disguises herself with a fake nose. Holden lights her cigarette – and her nose – and hilarity ensues.

The stunt that unnerved Ball

As the show’s creator related, Ball “always did every stunt that we wrote for her.” She enjoyed the challenge and the fun of it. When she was asked to don a wax nose for the episode featuring William Holden as a guest star, however, it caused her great distress.

Oppenheimer recalled: “In my favorite I Love Lucy episode, ‘L.A. at Last,’ when William Holden visits the Ricardos’ hotel room with Ricky, an embarrassed Lucy disguises herself with kerchief and glasses and a long putty nose. According to the script, as Holden lit her cigarette, the end of Lucy’s nose would go up in flames.”

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Ball was not amused by the bit and worried that the flame would end up burning her own skin, despite the lengths the show’s crew went to for her safety: “It took me all week to convince Lucy that her real nose wouldn’t catch on fire. Our makeup man, Hal King, used a putty nose that wouldn’t burn and placed a candlewick in it to ensure her safety.”

In the end, Ball pulled the stunt off and even did a little ad-libbing when she “picked up [a coffee cup] with both hands, dunking the end of her putty nose while it was still attached. It was an inspired moment, entirely hers.”