Why Lucille Ball Chose to Play a Character As Far ‘From Lucy Ricardo As Possible’ After ‘I Love Lucy’
Lucille Ball became one of the most famous celebrities of her time because of I Love Lucy. However, after the iconic sitcom came to a close, Ball wanted to get as far away from her character, Lucy Ricardo, as she could.
Lucille Ball had dreams of being on Broadway long before her 1950s sitcom
According to Playbill.com, when Ball “finally said goodbye to Lucy Ricardo,” she “turned her sights to Broadway, finding what seemed like a sure-fire hit.”
The musical the I Love Lucy star chose was titled Wildcat, in which she would play the lead role, Wildy, “a brassy, self-sufficient character as far removed from Lucy Ricardo as possible.”
What made this character so distinct from Lucy Ricardo? They couldn’t have been more different. Wildcat, The New York Times reported, was “the story of ‘a woman in dungarees’ who swings into a Southwestern oil town with dreams of striking it rich.” As the publication explained:
Unlike the heroines of other plays Ball had read and rejected, Wildcat ‘Wildy’ Jackson … was the kind of ‘rough-talking, and unbelievably energetic’ character she wanted to play.
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But what led Ball to make this decision? After all, she could have coasted off the Lucy character for years, had she chosen.
A number of factors seems to have led to Ball’s Broadway debut.
Ball likely wanted to try something new after playing the same character on TV for so many years. But perhaps it was about more than distancing herself from her television persona.
“I Love Lucy had just ended. Her marriage had too,” The New York Times explained. “The last kiss with Desi fell on the last moment of their last episode. …The next day she filed for divorce.”
Perhaps Ball also wanted to establish herself apart from her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Desi Arnaz.
“When your marriage has been, in a way, America’s marriage, what do you do after the love crash-dives?” the publication pondered.
After seeing a play “starring Vivien Leigh,” Ball cried to a friend: “What I do is so meaningless, so unimportant.”
After ‘I Love Lucy’, Ball wanted to try the theater — her dream from a young age
Ball appeared to find much more meaning in a role in the theater. In fact, being a Broadway star was Ball’s original goal when she moved to New York at 17 years old. Though she was told as at the time she wouldn’t make it, Ball revamped the dream after I Love Lucy.
“Ball wanted to shoulder a Broadway musical, starring in nearly every scene, dancing and belting a slew of difficult numbers,” the Times explained. However, she immediately ran into a problem.
As The New York Times bluntly put it: “… she was not a good dancer and she was not a good singer.”
Ball suffered her way through the run of the musical. Playbill recounted:
The show was plagued by problems almost from the start, with a blizzard forcing the rescheduling of opening night … and a very ill Ball, who took time off from the show to recuperate but collapsed onstage when she returned.
Lucille Ball couldn’t get away from Lucy Ricardo — even on Broadway
“The show was a commercial hit,” the Times reported. At least initially, people came out in droves for the I Love Lucy star. But — Lucy Ricardo is who they really wanted to see.
“People wanted Lucy. This was the closest they’d get,” the publication continued. However, Lucy wasn’t quite Lucy onstage — nor did she fully embody the main character of Wildcat, “Wildy.”
Ironically, Ball’s goal to distance herself from her I Love Lucy character backfired; whenever she messed up onstage, she would revert to Lucy Ricardo’s character quirks.
“… as the queen of the sitcom, she had grown used to majestic yuks; when it became clear the show wasn’t going to produce royal-size laughs, she decided to make her own,” The New York Times reported. A perfect example of that:
An onstage dog had an accident one matinee not long after opening night, and Ball grabbed a stage-prop broom and addressed the audience. ‘It’s in the small print in my contract,’ she said, Lucy Ricardo-style. ‘I have to clean up the dog [expletive]!’
During a separate performance, Ball referenced a character from I Love Lucy –“Say, do you know a fellow named Fred Mertz?” — just to get the laugh. It worked, “but made no sense.”