The old saying goes that behind every successful man, there was a strong woman. But for Lucille Ball - as successful a woman as there has ever been in Hollywood - there was a man, Bob Carroll, Jr., behind the scenes. With life-long writing partner, Madelyn Pugh Davis, Carroll wrote every episode of "I Love Lucy" (CBS, 1951-57) and spent the next few decades writing for the manic redhead. The pair hit upon a surefire formula - Lucy scheming to be a part of something, whether it's taking on a new job in a candy factory or trying to meet a famous person her bandleader husband (Desi Arnaz) is working with, only to have her efforts backfire in a madcap hilarity. Even through 180 episodes, the gags never got old, thanks to timeless concepts and lightening fast pacing which helped "I Love Lucy" remain a favorite for generations. Though Carroll died in early 2007, his work was assured to live forever.
Carroll was born on Aug. 12, 1919, in McKeesport, PA, but grew up in St. Petersberg, FL. During his teenage years, he suffered an infected hip and found himself confined to a hospital bed for five months. Throughout his recovery, he became a fan of WSUN radio theater; when the station sponsored a script contest, Bob entered with a script called, "Anthony Drum, Esquire." The morality play won the $10 first prize and marked the beginning of long, fruitful writing career. After his initial success, Carroll began writing a humor column, "Wang the Gong," for his high school newspaper. He also became interested in movies, enrolling at the University of Southern California in 1941 to study cinematography. Plagued once again by his hip, however, Carroll was forced to drop out after only two months.
Carroll took several odd jobs, eventually making his way to usher at CBS, which he considered a vast improvement over his previous position as a butcher's assistant. Moving to the mailroom, he soon rose to chief, before advancing to the publicity department. After which, followed a stint at the radio division where he assisted the disc jockeys while writing station breaks and comedy material. Soon enough, he was promoted to a full time network writing position. Once on staff, he and Madelyn Pugh, who arrived to Hollywood a few years earlier from Indianapolis, IN, partnered to write a radio sitcom, "The Couple Next Door." During their tenure, the duo became interested in another CBS show, "The Perfect Husband," featuring rising TV star and former B-movie film actress, Lucille Ball. They offered to take a stab by writing an audition script for free. Both the producers and Ball were impressed with their work, offering them a chance to take over as fulltime writers the following year. Ultimately, it was the start of a decades-long career of writing for Ball, and for a good amount of time, her husband, Latin bandleader, Desi Arnaz as well.
Capitalizing on the growing popularity of television, CBS was eager to convert its more successful radio shows to the new medium, including Ball's show. But with her desire to work with husband Arnaz, the show was re-imagined as "I Love Lucy." Carroll and Pugh - as well as writer Jesse Oppenheimer - were commissioned to write the pilot script. With that, the most famous sitcom in history quickly became a reality. Focusing on the day-to-day lives of a young - and interracial - married couple living in the New York City, based in part on Arnaz's real life experience as a big band leader, the show carefully struck a balance in making Lucy and Ricky as middle class - and therefore relatable - as possible. While Lucy and Desi had their characterizations down pat, it was up to Carroll and Pugh to create their comic foils - neighbors Fred (William Frawley) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance). They also contributed the name "Ricky Ricardo" after determining that the original name, "Larry Lopez," felt like too much of a gag.
Even when the medium was just being born, weekly television was a grind. "I Love Lucy" churned out as many as 35 episodes per season, much more than the average sitcom in later years. During production, Carroll and Pugh faced the task of generating one episode per week, usually running 40-50 pages in length. Even more challenging, in the beginning at least, was the format of the show still needed to be worked out - it was uncertain whether "I Love Lucy" would be done "live" in front of an audience, requiring a minimum of costume and set changes, or if it would be filmed on a sound stage, allowing more creative freedom. In the end, a compromise was found - due in no small part to Arnaz's brilliance. By the bandleader's suggestion, the show was filmed in front of an audience, but thanks to their ownership of the stages, permanent sets were built and the show was shot on film, versus the kinescope of the day.
A typical work week started on Monday, when Carroll and Pugh came into the office at Desilu Productions, adjacent to home studio Paramount Pictures, and tossed around ideas, coming up with a completed outline by the end of the day. Over the next two days, they would write the script and deliver it to Oppenheimer by Wednesday night. On Thursday, Oppenheimer provided feedback and the duo would rewrite the episode before turning it in the following Monday. In the first year, they were able to rely on a backlog of scripts from the radio show for ideas, which helped in the hectic first few months on television. But they soon were up to speed on their own, despite being continuously held to exacting standards by Oppenheimer and Ball - both stalwart pros who affectionately tagged Carroll and Pugh as "the kids." They went on to write every episode of the series, which ran on CBS for six years.
Carroll and Pugh had proven their worth to Ball and Desilu Productions, collaborating on her follow-up efforts after "I Love Lucy" bowed from the airwaves. As senior staff writers, they generated scripts and story ideas for "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1957-60). After Ball's split with Arnaz, Carroll and Pugh continued to write for more follow-ups, "The Lucy Show," (CBS, 1962-68) and "Here's Lucy" (CBS, 1968-74). Although all the shows had decent runs and healthy ratings, none had the long-term cultural impact of the original series.
Between assignments for Ball, Carroll and Pugh were offered a lucrative contract by Desilu, providing them the opportunity to create shows, TV specials and theatrical features. They wrote for less memorable shows such as "The Cara Williams Show" (CBS, 1964) and "The Debbie Reynolds Show" (NBC, 1969), both of which lasted only one season. Carroll and Pugh later reunited with Ball for the feature "Yours, Mine and Ours" (1968), starring alongside Henry Fonda as a newlywed couple dealing with each other's numerous children. It turned out to be their only big screen effort. Back on television, Carroll and Pugh did a stint on "The Paul Lynde Show" (ABC, 1972-73), but it was the public's appetite for Lucy that kept them reinventing their favorite star in various incarnations - in fact, it seemed like every few years she resurfaced on another show with Carroll and Pugh scripting her adventures. In 1977, they wrote the CBS television special, "Lucy Calls the President."
Carroll also did work away from the Ball realm as well. Late in his career, he served as a writer and producer for a while on the sitcom, "Alice," (CBS, 1976-1985), then worked on the short-lived sitcom "Private Benjamin" (CBS, 1981-83). Carroll and Pugh were called in one last time for the series "Life with Lucy," (ABC, 1986) starring Ball as a free-spirited grandmother. The short-lived show failed to catch on with viewers, who may have preferred Lucy as they remembered her in her younger years. The show was cancelled after a few months on the air, breaking Ball's heart and sending Carroll into retirement. His last credit came when his name appeared onscreen for the 2005 remake of "Yours Mine and Ours," on which he received story credit. Carroll was married and divorced twice, and had one daughter. He died of natural causes in Los Angeles, CA on Jan. 7, 2007 at the age of 87. His longtime writing partner, Pugh Davis survived, as one of the last surviving players from "I Love Lucy."