Lucille Ball: Finding Lucy, An “American Masters” Special will air on Thursday, October 13 at 8 p.m. on WNET THIRTEEN. The program features the most extensive compilation of archival footage ever gathered, and interviews with Carol Burnett, Fran Drescher and Dick Martin.
When I Love Lucy debuted October 15, 1951, the show became an instant sensation, defining the situation comedy format, driving thousands of viewers to television for the first time, and turning its unlikely star, Lucille Ball, into a legend. The humble road to that success began under the watchful eyes of studio heads like Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer. Ball underwent many metamorphoses (and hair colors) while honing her skill for comedy, eventually making her a reliable – if not bankable – movie star. But it was the small screen and her ability to “make ’em laugh” that turned her into an influential icon who still reverberates in the entertainment industry today.
American Masters explores the incredible life of Lucille Ball – the first female television superstar and first female head of a major studio – in Lucille Ball: Finding Lucy. In honor of the 60th anniversary of I Love Lucy, WNET New York Public Media presents special encore broadcasts Thursday, October 13 at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN, Saturday, October 15 at 8 p.m. on WLIW21 and Sunday, October 16 at 8:30 p.m. on NJTV. The film was produced and directed by Pamela Mason Wagner, and written by Thomas Wagner.
“To say that Lucille Ball was a phenomenon is an understatement,” says Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of American Masters, which has won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series for eight of the last 11 years. “Through sheer determination and hard work, this one woman fundamentally changed the broadcast industry forever and demolished preconceived notions about women, both at home and at work. We can still feel Lucy’s influence and relevance today.”
By virtue of an unprecedented arrangement between American Masters, CBS and the estate of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, American Masters Lucille Ball: Finding Lucy showcases the most extensive archive of film and television clips from the comic icon’s career. “Making this film provided the pleasure of rewatching the I Love Lucy show,” says Wagner. “We were able to include virtually all of Lucy’s classic moments. We rediscovered some lesser-known episodes, including the pilot, which was broadcast only once and which is as funny as it must have seemed 50 years ago.”
Before Lucille Ball invented her defining character, Lucy Ricardo, she struggled in 1930s Hollywood. In those days, the studios were searching for the next Greta Garbo, not actresses from Jamestown, N.Y. with a penchant for comedy. After appearing in 72 movies, including Stage Door, The Big Street, Du Barry Was a Lady, Dance Girl Dance, and Miss Grant Takes Richmond, Ball was still not a bankable, glamorous movie star. The infamous studio machines tried to sell her as the classic ingenue, the big city woman and the femme fatale, but none of these images clicked with the audience. Finally, she was cast in comedies, offering a glimpse of her future stardom.
Ball lit up the screen with her sensational timing, laser-sharp focus and hysterical facial expressions. But studio wisdom still decreed that funny women didn’t sell movie tickets. Undaunted, the “Queen of B Movies,” as she was known in the ’40s, moved into radio and enjoyed success with the weekly CBS radio show My Favorite Husband. While mugging for the live studio audience, Lucy Ricardo was born. When CBS decided to take the radio show to television, Ball insisted on making her husband, Desi Arnaz, her co-star. The studios balked, but the tough actress held her ground. To prove to studio heads that Americans would accept the Cuban bandleader as her on-screen husband, the couple created a traveling vaudeville show that triumphantly played the country. The CBS brass relented, and the rest is history.
I Love Lucy touched a chord with post-war baby boomers. Viewers could relate to Lucy and her middle-class neighbors. Likewise, Ball drew people in and made them laugh, cheer and even weep. The show became a smash hit, dominating ratings as well as breakfast table conversations across America. When Ball became pregnant, which in those days meant the end of a woman’s career, Lucy persevered and incorporated “the blessed event” into the show’s story line. She even survived McCarthy-era accusations of communism, which hit front pages across the country. Shortly after the accusations became public, Arnaz introduced his wife before a live broadcast declaring, “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that’s not legitimate.” The audience roared, and any un-American thoughts about “The First Woman of Television” were vanquished.
Ball’s career did not end with the run of I Love Lucy. She continued her television life with three subsequent shows, all revolving around variations of her original Lucy character. The Lucy Show followed Lucy and Vivian’s adventures without Ricky and Fred by their sides, Here’s Lucy engaged two new characters when she brought her real-life children into her small-screen family, and Life with Lucy portrayed Lucy as grandmother.
While these three shows never achieved the soaring success of the original I Love Lucy, Ball continued to blaze trails behind the scenes. Soon after the conclusion of I Love Lucy, she bought out Arnaz’s shares of their lucrative production company, Desilu Productions, becoming the first female chairwoman of a studio. Ball proved to be a competent and formidable leader, supervising a staff of nearly 2,000. Her contributions included green lighting the TV shows Mission Impossible and Star Trek, which went on to become phenomenal successes – veritablecottage industries.
At a memorial service after Ball’s death in 1989, ABC reporter Diane Sawyer summed up her enduring legacy: “It may be that during business hours God and the angels sit around watching six-hour documentaries, but in the back family room they’re watching I Love Lucy. I believe there is laughter in heaven because Lucille Ball is there.”
American Masters Lucille Ball: Finding Lucy, produced by Thomas Wagner and Pamela Mason Wagner and directed by Pamela Mason Wagner, first aired in 2000. The film won a primetime Emmy as the representative show for American Masters in 2001. It also received a CINE Golden Eagle Award, a gold jury award at the Houston International Film Festival, and a Silver CINDY Award. Susan Lacy is the series creator and executive producer of American Masters.