Before Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball made ratings gold each week on I Love Lucy, they were balancing film roles and Arnaz’s stint in the Army. When he was about to be discharged after his service, Arnaz felt he was a shoe-in for an upcoming character in an MGM movie since he was under still contract with the studio. The musician was stunned to discover that the part was given to another up-and-coming actor.
Desi Arnaz had appeared in the MGM film ‘Bataan’
Arnaz had served in the Army for over two years when he began preparing for his discharge. Due to his favorable performance as Felix Ramirez in the 1943 MGM film Bataan, Arnaz was confident that the studio was considering him for an upcoming movie.
“I knew MGM was making a musical with Esther Williams,” he wrote in his memoir, A Book. “It sounded like a perfect setup to me. I was under contract to them; they had been pleased with my job on Bataan, so I figured I’d just go over and tell them I was getting out of the Army.”
The film was Fiesta, which told the story of a bullfighter who wanted to be a music composer. Arnaz felt he was ideal for the lead and let MGM know of his availability.
“I went to the studio and told Jack Cummings, who was to produce the picture, ‘Jack, I’m going to be out in a month and you’re doing a picture with Esther Williams,'” Arnaz recalled. “‘I wanted you to know I’ll be available. I’m perfect for the part.'”
Ricardo Montalban was given the ‘Fiesta’ role
Though Arnaz expected to be granted the part, Cummings informed him they were going with another actor on the rise.
“Ricardo Montalban,” Cummings told Arnaz. “A Mexican actor we have signed. He’s going to play the lead opposite Esther in the picture.”
The I Love Lucy star was stunned that the role would be going to someone without a substantial history with the studio.
“I have been in the Army for two and a half years,” Arnaz told Cummings. “This is a perfect part for me and you are going to give it to someone else who’s not even under contract with the studio?”
Cummings told him, “It’s already done.”
Desi Arnaz felt ‘out of sight, out of mind’
It took time for Arnaz to bounce back from the loss. He was concerned he would continue to be passed over for similar types of roles with Montalban as competition.
“It was quite a heartbreaker for me,” he wrote. “I was sure I was a cinch to start with that film. But I also realized Jack Cummings, a top producer of musicals, was very much sold on Montalban and I worried about how many parts were going to come up for that type of lead. If he was that sold on Montalban, I was going to be there playing second fiddle and doing whatever they didn’t want him to do.”
Arnaz realized his time in the Army may have put him in a less favorable position with the studio since new talent was always knocking on Hollywood’s door.
“I guess it was out of sight, out of mind,” Arnaz remarked. “I had been gone two and a half years and they had forgotten what they had hired me for… musical comedies.
Montalban and Williams went on to make several films together. Arnaz was soon back on top, making television history with Ball when I Love Lucy launched in 1951.