Lucille Ball (August 6, 1911 - April 26, 1989) was a fiery and hilarious comedienne, actress, and producer who continually broke barriers for women in television. In honor of what would have been her 109th birthday, let's look at why she is still so loved.
Lucille got her start as a model before performing on Broadway. In the 1930s and 1940s, she took on small roles in several films as a contract player. During this time, she met Cuban band leader Desi Arnez and the two were married in 1940. Lucille's first notable success after the success of a radio comedy, My Favorite Husband, during which she learned that she was much better at comedy when performing to a live audience.
The success of the radio program lead to a planned television adaptation in 1950. Both the network and main sponsor wanted to keep the existing radio actor as her husband on screen, but Lucille fought for her real-life husband Desi to get the role. The network pushed back, fearing audiences would object to showing a marriage of people from different ethnicities, but Lucille insisted -- even when it caused the original sponsor to back out! She used her cachet as an actress to land Desi the role, and the show became the most-watched show in the U. S. for four seasons.
This was not the only time she would use her show to push the envelope by including taboo-at-time content like a multiethnic marriage, nor was it the last time she followed her preferred path instead of the easier route. Rare for the time, she insisted the show also included her real-life pregnancy as part of the storyline, a move that resulted in a team composed of a rabbi, a minister, and a priest reviewing the scripts for anything that could be potentially offensive. As one of the first female comedic leads on TV, her comedic strength paved the way for future women in television. The show also featured a strong female friendship and portrayed housewives with much more depth and agency than most other media of the time.
Her legacy wasn’t just in front of the camera; she was a strong businesswoman who became a power player in the industry. She was the first woman to run a major television production studio, Desilu. She and Arnaz had started the company together in 1950, and Ball became the sole owner by buying out his shares after their 1962 divorce. Her success off-screen opened doors for female producers and studio executives in the years to come.
Another reason to love her: Without Lucy, there’d be no Star Trek! When the first Star Trek pilot was rejected by the network, she stepped in and took the unusual step of requesting and funding a second pilot through her production company. She believed in the concept despite the failed first attempt and the enormous budget, and she was right: nearly 60 years later, Star Trek is still one of the largest media franchises in history.
For her talent, for her bravery, for her legacy, we’ll always love Lucy!