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|Also Known As:||Diane Belmont,Lucille Desiree Ball||Died:||April 26, 1989|
|Born:||August 6, 1911||Cause of Death:||cardiac arrest after open heart surgery|
|Birth Place:||Jamestown, New York, USA||Profession:||Cast ... actor comedian producer executive singer dancer model secretary waitress|
As one of America's most beloved comediennes and one of Hollywood's more astute businesswomen, the legendary Lucille Ball rose from being a B-movie film actress to one of television's most iconic figures, boasting more than 50 years of continuous employment in Hollywood. Because of her eternally syndicated sitcom, "I Love Lucy" (CBS, 1951-57), which broke new ground in too many areas to count, Ball remained a constant presence on the small screen and, consequently, remained well-known to subsequent generations of fans. Prior to "I Love Lucy," Ball took over the mantle of "Queen of the Bs" from Fay Wray after appearing in a number of B-movies, with the occasional A-list project like the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicles "Top Hat" (1935) and "Follow the Fleet" (1936) classing up her resume. She delivered a fine turn in "Stage Door" (1937) and served as the Marx Brothers' foil in "Room Service" (1938). After meeting and marrying Cuban-born actor-bandleader Desi Arnaz in 1940, Ball propelled her career as the star of the radio show "My Favorite Husband" (CBS, 1948-1951), which served as a precursor to "I Love Lucy." Though CBS was initially resistant to pairing the Caucasian Ball with the Cuban Arnaz as a believable husband and wife, the network had a change of heart after the couple launched a smash-hit vaudeville show, which green lit one of the most popular and enduring sitcoms of all time. Following Ball's painful split with Arnaz in 1960, she executed a number of savvy business moves as head of her own studio, Desilu, while launching two more successful sitcoms, "The Lucy Show" (CBS, 1962-68) and "Here's Lucy" (CBS, 1968-74). Though her popularity waned in the 1970s and 1980s, as evidenced by the rapid failure of "Life with Lucy" (ABC, 1986), Ball was forever cemented as a comic legend whose influence spanned generations.
Born on Aug. 6, 1911 in Jamestown, NY, Ball was raised by her father, Henry, a telephone lineman who died of typhoid fever in 1915, and her mother, Desiree, a concert pianist. While her father was still alive, Ball moved around because of his job, taking up residence in Montana and Michigan. When her mother remarried four years after her father's death, however, Ball found herself placed in the care of her strict Puritan step-grandparents, who inflicted emotional and psychological strain. Meanwhile, her maternal grandfather loved the theater and frequently took the family to see vaudeville shows, even encouraging the young Ball to participate in school plays. When she was 12, Ball was further encouraged into show business by her stepfather to entertain his cohorts at the Shriners club. A few years later, she attended the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton Drama School in New York, where she was a classmate of an 18-year-old Bette Davis. After adopting the stage name Diane Belmont and being fired from several chorus jobs, she retreated to her home in Celoron, NY, where she spent two years battling the crippling effects of rheumatoid arthritis.
Returning to New York in the early 1930s, Ball returned to working as a model for Hattie Carnegie while also doing time as a Chesterfield cigarette girl. She soon embarked on a Hollywood career, which at first consisted mostly of walk-ons and bit roles before she was turned into a glamorous Goldwyn showgirl in Eddie Cantor musicals like "Roman Scandals" (1933). Put under contract by Columbia, the then-blonde, statuesque actress continued to appear in small roles - most notably as a foil for the Three Stooges - before her option was dropped. RKO hired Ball at the urging of producer Pandro S. Berman, who featured her in supporting roles in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films "Roberta" (1935), "Top Hat" (1935) and "Follow the Fleet" (1936). Playing alongside Ginger Rogers - whose mother also mentored Ball - and Katharine Hepburn, she won strong notices for her turn as a tough, aspiring actress in "Stage Door" (1937). But the comedic side of Ball began to emerge when she supported the Marx Brothers in "Room Service" (1938), and essayed a wacky actress in "The Affairs of Annabel" (1938) and its sequels. Not surprisingly, the actress idolized her fellow RKO contract player, screwball comedy queen Carole Lombard, then one of the biggest stars in town. She would go on to credit the actress as her comic inspiration who often gave her career advice, even after Lombard's tragic airplane death in 1942, with Ball telling friends Carole frequently came to her in her dreams for decades after the accident.
Ball further proved adept at playing jaded sophisticates in the college musicals "Too Many Girls" (1940), where she first laid eyes on Cuban bandleader and Conga King Desi Arnaz, who had a bit part as a bellhop in the musical. After a brief and passionate courtship, the two later eloped that same year, only to see Ball file for divorce in 1944 due to wartime separations and rumors of his serial infidelity on the road. But after receiving an interlocutory decree, she reconciled with Arnaz who was not ready to let her go. Meanwhile, both agreed that Ball being six years older than Arnaz was verboten, leading to both claiming to have been born in 1914. Meanwhile, she continued making movies with "Best Foot Forward" (1943) and excelled as a hard-hearted nightclub star in the Damon Runyon melodrama "The Big Street" (1942), co-starring Henry Fonda. After signing with MGM, Ball - nicknamed by the PR department as "Technicolor Tessie" due to her now fiery hennaed hair and brilliant blue eyes - starred in the film version of the hit Broadway musical "Du Barry Was a Lady" (1943) opposite Red Skelton, but the majority of her subsequent vehicles favored her male co-stars. Failing to break-out as a film star, she launched a successful radio career in the late 1940s, starring as a dizzy housewife in the comedy "My Favorite Husband" (CBS, 1947-51). That success led to slightly improved studio vehicles like "The Fuller Brush Girl" (1950), and two fine comedies opposite Bob Hope, "Fancy Pants" (1949) and "Sorrowful Jones" (1950).
Perhaps sensing that her film career was stalled and she was not getting any younger, Ball turned to the fledgling medium of television to reinvent herself. Asked to recreate her radio persona in a comedy series, she insisted that Cuban-born husband Arnaz be her co-star. CBS executives balked at the idea, claiming that audiences would not accept them as a married couple, despite the laughable fact that they already were. To assuage those concerns, Ball and Arnaz formed Desilu Productions in 1950 and embarked on a successful vaudeville tour that proved not only that audiences would embrace them as a couple, but also that they could work together and not seriously compromise their marriage. Though CBS was initially unimpressed with the pilot for "I Love Lucy" (CBS, 1951-57), the strength of their vaudeville tour was enough for the network to put it on their schedule. It became an almost instant hit while rapidly transforming the way television was made. Due in large part to Arnaz's genius, the show forfeited the then popular Kinescope process and instead filmed with the then-pioneering three-camera technique in front of a studio audience, which would go on to define a sitcom taping. The show - which Arnaz wisely insisted the couple own - defined the prototype for the situation comedy, focusing on the antics of a married couple mirroring their own selves and their landlords, the Mertzes (Vivian Vance and William Frawley).
From the series' debut in October 1951, Ball emerged a full-fledged star, with viewers tuning in weekly to laugh at her zany antics and well-meaning schemes, which utilized every aspect of her comedic talents. As an inept homemaker who yearns to break into show business despite her band leader husband's constant refusals, Ball's Lucy Ricardo went to great lengths to prove herself, only to cause unmitigated disaster as a result. Whether she was stuffing chocolates in her mouth off a conveyor built, becoming increasingly drunk while pitching a vitamin tonic, or mimicking Harpo Marx during a trip to Hollywood, Ball engaged in dexterous physical comedy or absurd disguises, but still emerged with her dignity and lady-like persona in tact. Meanwhile, many real-life situations that cropped up in Ball and Arnaz's lives made it into the show, most notably when she became pregnant with their second child, Desi Arnaz, Jr. Ball and Arnaz had the pregnancy written into the show, though the network refused them to use the word "pregnant" on air, making them opt for "expecting" instead. Though not the first onscreen pregnancy - the sitcom "Mary Kay and Johnny" (CBS/NBC, 1947-1950) held that honor - "I Love Lucy" certainly was the most famous early example, with the on-screen birth of Little Ricky coinciding with the birth of their actual son in real life and becoming a bigger news event than the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower.
In 1953, Ball - then at the peak of her popularity - was dragged into the Red Scare when she gave sealed testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which she answered questions about her registering to vote as a Communist in 1936. Ball told the committee that she had done so only at the insistence of her socialist grandfather. The public believed her and she was one of the few accused to emerge unscathed. Meanwhile, after nearly six years - during which their marriage was rocked by Arnaz's increasing alcoholism and womanizing - Ball and Arnaz ended the series in favor of a series of one-hour comedy specials. Featuring the characters of "I Love Lucy" that aired originally as part of "Desilu Playhouse," the show was packaged as "The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show/The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1957-1960). Having wisely retained all the rights to "I Love Lucy" after its initial broadcast, the couple racked up enormous profits from the sale of its syndication rights, an unheard of event in the early 1950s. Eventually, Arnaz and Ball sold the filmed episodes back to CBS for a tidy profit and the show continued to air somewhere in the world well into the new millennium. They also purchased RKO, the studio they had worked at when they had first met, christening it Desilu, which Arnaz skillfully ran, almost to the detriment of his marriage. In 1960, Arnaz and Ball shocked fans when they divorced just two months after filming the final episode of "Comedy Hour," though the two remained close friends until Arnaz's death in 1986, even though both would go on to remarry. In fact, both made it clear in books and interviews that each was the love of the other's life. Meanwhile, she attempted to re-establish herself in other venues, headlining the musical "Wildcat" (1960), which proved too grueling and forced her withdrawal for health reasons. Ball fared slightly better in a big screen reteaming with Bob Hope in "The Facts of Life" (1960), though ultimately television once again proved to be her most viable medium. She simply could not exist without the instant feedback of a cheering television audience.
After assuming the position as head of Desilu Productions in the wake of Arnaz's departure, Ball was in the enviable position as one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, heading a major production company. But soon she bought out Arnaz's share in 1962 and five years later sold the company to Gulf + Western for a substantial profit, making her an even wealthier woman. Before the sale of Desilu, however, Ball embarked on another successful sitcom, "The Lucy Show" (CBS, 1962-68) which featured old friend Vivian Vance and new stock players, Gale Gordon and Mary Jane Croft. She starred as a widow with two children who, along with divorcee friend (Vance), concoct harebrained, get-rich-quick schemes while seeking to meet eligible men. A top-rated show even in its final year, Ball decided to pull the plug after the sale of Desilu in favor of "Here's Lucy" (CBS, 1968-74), which became the first show under her new banner, Lucille Ball Productions. The sitcom featured Ball as an employee at an unemployment agency who battles her cantankerous boss (Gordon) while raising her two increasingly independent teenage children (real-life kids Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr.). Another sitcom success, "Here's Lucy" lost its ratings edge in the final season and was canceled in 1974, marking an end to Ball's long run as a regularly seen television star. She spent a few years enjoying a more settled married life with comic Gary Morton, whom she had wed in 1961 in the wake of her painful split with Arnaz.
Disgruntled with CBS and with the kinds of issue-oriented sitcoms proliferating during the 1970s, Ball signed a deal with rival network NBC and in 1980 made a 90-minute special that included a pilot in which Donald O'Connor starred alongside a banjo-playing teenager. Although Ball proclaimed at the end of the special "That's what I call entertainment!," the network and sponsors felt it was far from it, showing that Ball's influence in TV had considerably waned. But she did not remain entirely idle. Ball undertook a dramatic role as a homeless woman in the TV movie "The Stone Pillow" (CBS, 1985). Her fans reacted with horror and the critics were divided over her performance. Many could not get past her larger-than-life TV personality and could only see the comic "Lucy" rather than an actress. Deciding to give series television another whirl, Ball portrayed a free-spirited grandmother on "Life with Lucy" (ABC, 1986), which was produced with Aaron Spelling and had a 22-episode guaranteed order from the network. But the show flopped almost immediately and was off the air within weeks with some filmed episodes never shown. Reportedly depressed from this outcome, the aging Ball confined her remaining TV appearances to awards specials and talk shows. After making her final appearance alongside Bob Hope at the 61st Academy Awards, Ball underwent heart surgery and received an aorta replacement. Though appearing to recover, she suffered a rupture and died on April 26, 1989, as the world held its collective breath. Ball was just 77 years old. Years after her death, the manuscript for a long-lost autobiography was found in a filing cabinet. Covering her life into the 1960s, Love, Lucy became an instant bestseller when it was published in 1996, while "I Love Lucy" continued to air in syndication, most likely into perpetuity.
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