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Overview for Desi Arnaz
Desi Arnaz

Desi Arnaz


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Also Known As: Desiderio Alberto Arnaz Y Acha Died: December 2, 1986
Born: March 2, 1917 Cause of Death: cancer
Birth Place: Santiago, CU Profession: Cast ... actor singer bandleader musician producer director


As the conga drum-beating bandleader Ricky Ricardo, Desi Arnaz became a household name and, along with wife Lucille Ball, one-half of an iconic team on TV's most beloved sitcom of all time, "I Love Lucy" (CBS, 1951-57). Unbeknownst to many who viewed him as an actor and musician, Arnaz was also a powerful and influential producer, partly responsible for many conventions of television taken for granted today, such as the multi-camera sitcom, filming shows live before a studio audience - not to mention the very idea of the rerun. In essence, Arnaz was ahead of his time in many ways.

Born March 2, 1917 in Santiago, Cuba, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha grew up in a prominent and wealthy family. His father was a member of the Cuban House of Representatives as well as the mayor of Santiago. But being well-connected in the politically volatile Cuba exacted its own price. During the 1933 revolution, the family was forced to flee for their lives to Miami. Settling in the United States, young Arnaz, like the rest of his family, took a series of odd and menial jobs - including, at one point, cleaning birdcages. But he also began to focus on music, and just a few years after arriving in the States, ambitiously landed a paying gig in a Latin orchestra, playing drums and guitar. Realizing his true calling, the ambitious young man never looked back.

His music career launched, Arnaz took an opportunity to move to New York City to work under his mentor, legendary bandleader, Xavier Cugat. Arnaz learned as much as he could, returning to Miami less than a year later, to form his own orchestra. It was during that time, that Arnaz introduced the conga line dance to Americans - a dance craze which soon spread nationwide. Arnaz was also signed to a recording contract with RCA Victor in 1937. Returning triumphantly to NYC on his own headlining merits, in 1939, he landed a Broadway role in the very popular Rodgers and Hart musical, "Too Many Girls," after producers spotted Arnaz's conga act at a local nightclub.

The hot-blooded, handsome Latin was so impressive on stage, that RKO producers invited him to Hollywood the following year to reprise his role in the film version of the Broadway hit. While filming the movie, the cocky musician struck up a romance with the film's B-list lead actress, Lucille Ball. Instantly attracted, they dated tumultuously on and off for several months, driving their friends crazy with the passionate ups-and-downs of it all. They married that same year, between Arnaz's music performances. Immediately, the marriage was on the rocks - between long distance hardships and Arnaz's fondness for chorus girls while on the road - the couple barely survived their first year as husband and wife. Additionally, it went against Arnaz's Latin machismo that his wife was more famous than he; that her pull at MGM helped facilitate a contract for the aspiring actor. Despite his issues with the latter, Arnaz appeared in a number of movies, including "Father Takes a Wife," (1941) "The Navy Comes Through" (1942) and, most memorably, as a dying soldier in "Bataan" (1943), in which he received stellar notices from film critics.

During World War II, Arnaz was called into service, but because of a knee injury, he never saw combat; instead, being assigned the job of directing programs for the U.S.O. in Los Angeles. At least, he was nearby his wife, who found keeping an eye on his roving eye, as much of a full time job as being a second tier MGM glamour girl. With long nights on the U.S.O. road, Arnaz was often preoccupied with drinking and womanizing - an understandably infuriating situation for the proud but absolutely smitten Ball. At her wits' end, the actress filed for divorce in 1944, but with a little kissing up from the equally smitten Arnaz, the couple reconciled before the interlocutory decree became final.

After the war, Arnaz revisited his first love - forming and leading yet another orchestra. His 1946 single, "Babalu," was a huge hit and became his signature song for the rest of his life. He would perform this number in his only starring film vehicle, "Cuban Pete" (1946). However, due again to his long stints on the road, the marriage was again collapsing under the strain of all that went with extended separations. Desperate to hold onto her husband and to figure out a way for the couple to actually work and thus, be, together, Ball began formulating a plan. By 1948, she had been cast in the hit radio show, "My Favorite Husband," playing the part of a madcap wife opposite her radio husband, Dick Denning. When CBS decided to move the show over to the new medium of television, it was Ball's idea to bring her real life husband along as her co-star. When the network scoffed at the onscreen believability of a W.A.S.P.Y. redhead being married to a Latin bandleader who could barely speak discernible English, the couple took to the road to prove their appeal to the masses. The live touring show packed them in, as people fell in love with the couple's chemistry and wacky banter - most specifically, loving the hot-headed way Arnaz reacted to Ball's shenanigans, etc. - all sketches which would work their way into the TV series. Proving their appeal as a couple, Arnaz and Ball were thrilled when "I Love Lucy" was greenlit by CBS and the show's sponsor, Phillip Morris. The rest would become television history.

With the premiere of episode one, "The Girls Want to go to the Nightclub," the show debuted on Oct. 15, 1951, marking the beginning of Desilu Productions - Arnaz's business partnership with Ball - to say nothing of the beginning of the modern sitcom. The show set a number of sitcom precedents. Because the couple insisted on staying in Los Angeles, the show could not be broadcast live from NY; instead being shot on film, which was a much more expensive option. And unlike the typical use of kinescope - filming the picture from a television monitor - which was the industry norm at that time, "I Love Lucy" would be captured for all time on high quality 35 mm film. Multiple cameras were used for the first time, with sets that adjoined each other, allowing for a studio audience which could laugh at Lucy's hijinks live. Arnaz, who at that time, unknowingly masterminded these ideas, simply knew his wife worked best in front of a live audience. It has been said that the musician's lack of real business acumen ended up paying off in unexpected ways - a lack of understanding in spreading out costs over the life of the show caused early episodes to be expensive, but later ones to bring in enormous profits. His business naiveté was credited with, among many things, the idea of re-runs and syndication.

Thanks to its likable characters - which, along with Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, included Fred (William Frawley) and Ethel (Vivian Vance) Mertz - quick wit, and near contemporary pacing, "I Love Lucy" remained one of the most popular shows in history, both during its six year-run and for decades after. Arnaz and Ball's unlikely appeal as a couple transcended the small screen. Not only did they sell out magazines when gracing the cover, successfully promote products in various TV and print ads, but they lit up the big screen as well, starring in the hit comedy, "The Long, Long Trailer," (1954) and later, "Forever Darling" (1956).

During their marriage, Arnaz and Ball had two children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr. - the latter of who's 1953 birth was written into the show, despite the fact that pregnancy was an unspoken and unseen condition up until this time. Arnaz insisted proudly to CBS that it be addressed - even consulting a priest, a rabbi and a minister for their take on the propriety of it all. The network finally relented, letting Arnaz and Ball weave the pregnancy into the story line, but remained adamant about eschewing the use of pregnant. Ever the idea man, Arnaz substituted expecting, pronouncing it hilariously as 'spectin' in his Cuban accent. The birth of "Little Ricky" - which coincided that same night with the real-life birth of Desi, Jr. - brought in untold number of viewers - the largest ever measured up until that point. The blessed event even knocked President Eisenhower out of the news.

In a move no one would have anticipated in years prior, in 1956, the English-mangling musician used he and his wife's clout, as well as their new riches, to purchase the same studio that had produced "Too Many Girls," their first film together - RKO Studios. With Arnaz running the business side of things, Desilu - now on the Paramount Studios-adjacent, former RKO lot - started churning out one hit TV program after another, including "Mission: Impossible," (CBS, 1966-1973) "The Untouchables" (CBS, 1959-1963) and "Star Trek" (NBC, 1963-69). The new Desilu Studio also produced the couples' two films, "The Long, Long, Long Trailer" (the company's first foray into film) and "Forever Darling."

Nevertheless, the pressures and demands of creating "Lucy" and its follow-up, "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour," (CBS, 1957-60) - not to mention Arnaz' brutal touring schedule - took its toll on the studio mogul. As Arnaz continued his dalliances with women and alcohol, Ball finally ended their marriage in 1960, eventually buying out his share of their studio since he was in no shape to run it anymore. Despite their split and for the rest of their lives, they spoke warmly of one another and each considered the other, the great love of their lives. Ball always cited her ex-husband's brilliance as the reason for her own success, but just as quickly blamed their split on his gradual, but determined self-sabotage - boozing and broads finally eroding not only their 20 year marriage, but their business empire as well.

Three years later, Arnaz married a far lower profile actress, but nonetheless, another redhead, named Edith Mack Hirsh. He also began to scale back his producing and performing. Despite virtually disappearing off the pop cultural landscape, he did manage to make a handful of TV guest appearances and was an executive producer and occasional actor on the hit Desilu show, "The Mothers-in-Law" (NBC, 1967-69), in which he charmingly played a Spanish matador. To promote his 1976 autobiography, the cryptically named A Book, Arnaz served as a memorable host on the relatively new hit, "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975-), playing the drums and singing a song in Spanish, before ending the show by sending his love to his former wife. In the graphic tell-all book, he unashamedly went into details of his drinking and infidelities, completely owning up to his bad boy past. Aside from bit parts and on shows such as "The Virginian" (NBC, 1962-1971) and "Ironside," (NBC, 1967-1975) his last memorable TV appearance was a second-season episode of the hit sitcom "Alice" (CBS, 1976-85) entitled "The Cuban Connection."

Arnaz and Hirsh eventually moved to Del Mar, CA, where he lived the rest of his life in semi-retirement. He contributed generously to charitable and non-profit organizations, including San Diego State University. His last appearance in any medium was a small part in the feature film, "The Escape Artist" (1982). Only four years later, this life-long smoker succumbed to lung cancer after a painful struggle, his daughter Lucie at his side. One of the last people he spoke to was Lucille Ball, in which he again, proclaimed his love for her - thus bringing to a close one of the most memorable Hollywood love stories of the twentieth century. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered. A widely published photograph taken at his memorial service showed an aged and obviously grieving Ball - the last surviving cast member of "I Love Lucy" at that time - emerging from the church. Only three years later, she too, would pass away. In a touching tribute, Arnaz's look-alike son, Desi, Arnaz Jr., would go on to portray his father in the 1992 film, "The Mambo Kings," starring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante as Cuban immigrant brothers, struggling to make it as big band musicians in the 1950s.

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