Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball made comedy magic as Ricky and Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy. With William Frawley and Vivian Vance starring as neighbors and besties Fred and Ethel Mertz, the acting ensemble’s chemistry put the sitcom at the top of the ratings for six seasons. With so much at stake when the show began in 1951, conflicts arose between the co-stars before the series premiere.
Lucille Ball ended her maternity leave early to start ‘I Love Lucy’
Ball and Arnaz had just welcomed their first child, Lucie, in July of 1951 when the famous redhead had to head back to the studio after just six weeks to get started on I Love Lucy. Arnaz had cast Vance and Frawley and was managing everything from set design to scripting.
“Rehearsals got under way to the pounding of hammers and buzzing of saws,” Ball wrote in her memoir, Love, Lucy. “Desi was so nervous that he memorized everybody’s lines and moved his own lips as they spoke. He also kept flicking his eyes around the set watching the progress of the three cameras.”
Each cast member came to the sitcom with an impressive list of show business credits, and had opinions on details from storylines to dialogue.
“I wanted everything about the venture to be top-flight,” Ball explained. “The timing, the handling of props. … We argued a good deal at first because we all cared so passionately; sometimes we’d discuss phrasing or word emphasis in a line of dialogue until past midnight.”
Vivian Vance and William Frawley took opposite approaches
Ball described Frawley as the ideal embodiment of his cranky character, and revealed that that he never bothered to overthink his lines.
“Bill Frawley couldn’t understand the need for all this hairsplitting,” Ball shared. “He’d tear his part out of the script, memorize it, and pay no attention to what the rest of us were saying or doing. … If he got his big laugh, he didn’t care how or why. And actually, Bill can be funny doing nothing. He has that kind of face, and in any kind of costume he’s hilarious.”
The comedy legend found many similarities between herself and Vance, whom she called a “perfectionist” and often sought the motivation for her character’s responses.
“During one early rehearsal, Vivian was championing a particular way in which a line should be spoken,” Ball recalled. “Nobody agreed with her, but she kept explaining and explaining, until finally we did see the logic of her position. By this time it was 2 a.m. and she was so wound up she couldn’t stop talking.”
‘I Love Lucy’ was an instant hit
When the premiere date was drawing near, the cast was still trying to iron out discrepancies. Vance turned out to be a port in the storm.
“I could sense a flaw in the storyline or dialogue but I couldn’t always put my objections into words,” Ball wrote. “Frustrated, Desi would burst into a flood of Spanish. I’d express my frustrations by getting mad. Vivian was a tower of strength in such circumstances; she would intuitively guess what was wrong then analyze it. She would make a great director.”
Despite the bumps along the way, I Love Lucy was immediately embraced by viewers and became a resident in TV’s top 10 ratings roster.
“The first four shows put us among the top 10 on television,” Ball noted. “Our 20th show made us number one on the air and there we stayed for three wild, incredible years. I Love Lucy has been called the most popular television show of all time.”
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