Arnaz, Desi: 1917-1986: Bandleader, Entertainer, Producer
Desi Arnaz: 1917-1986: Bandleader, entertainer, producer
Desi Arnaz made his mark as the straight man of the comedic couple behind the popular 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. A Cuban immigrant, Arnaz was also a very savvy businessman. Arnaz's talents as a singer and entertainer helped to make I Love Lucy the first great television sitcom, but it was his skill as a businessman that built the Arnaz family empire.
Arnaz was born Desiderio Alberto Arnez y de Acha on March 2, 1917, in Santiago, Cuba, to Desiderio, the mayor of Santiago and a wealthy land owner, and Dolores (de Acha) Arnaz, who was the daughter of a founder of the Bacardi rum company. The two later divorced. The Arnaz family were part of Cuba's small but vastly privileged upper class—among their holdings were a cattle ranch, two dairy farms, and a villa on an island in Santiago Bay. As part of a distinguished political family, Arnaz was expected to attend college and pursue a career in law and politics. In 1933, when Arnaz was a teenager, the Cuban revolution against the corrupt regime of President Gerardo Machado changed the family's course. The family home in Santiago was ransacked and burned, and his father, who recently had been elected to congress, was jailed. Informed that he would be allowed to leave the country, Arnaz's father fled to Miami, leaving their wealth behind and later sending for his son. By the time Arnaz arrived, his father had established an import-export company, and father and son scrimped, living at the company warehouse and eating canned beans.
In Miami Arnaz got a job cleaning cages for a canary dealer that paid fifteen dollars a week, a good wage for a teenager during the Depression. He left his political future and his cage-cleaning job behind when he was offered a job with a Latin dance band at the Roney Plaza Hotel, for thirty-nine dollars a week. It was the first time he had considered a show-business life for himself. He had only previously used his five-dollar pawnshop guitar to serenade and woo women.
Young Latin Bandleader
Xavier Cugat, then the king of Latin music in the United States, caught Arnaz's act one night and hired him, but Arnaz had to accept a salary cut down to 25 dollars, on the understanding that, if he did well, they would renegotiate. Arnaz turned out to be very popular and soon was bumped to thirty-five dollars. Before long Arnaz decided he could do better on his own and told Cugat he intended to form his own band. Cugat offered instead to let him bill his new act as the Desi Arnaz and his Xavier Cugat Orchestra. Arnaz agreed to pay Cugat a royalty of 25 dollars per week to use his name. When Cugat asked why only 25 dollars, Arnaz—already displaying his business savvy—gave Cugat the same deal Cugat had given him. He told Cugat that if they did well, they would renegotiate. Arnaz debuted his new band in 1937. The opening was a disaster; two of the musicians were not even Latin. For the next night, Arnaz played the conga, an instrument then unknown in the United States.
At a Glance . . .
Born Desiderio Alberto Arnez y de Acha on March 2, 1917, in Santiago, Cuba; died on December 2, 1986, in Del Mar, CA; married Lucille Ball, 1940 (divorced 1960), married Edie Hirsch; children: (with Ball) Lucie Desiree, Desi.
Career: Producer, entertainer, bandleader. Played guitar in a band at the Roney Plaza Hotel; played with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra; formed Desi Arnaz Orchestra, 1937; appeared in the Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical Too Many Girls ; reprised role in film version of Too Many Girls, performed in minor films, on the radio, and with his successful Desi Arnaz Orchestra, beginning 1940; formed Desilu Productions with Ball, 1948; produced and starred in I Love Lucy, 1951-60; bought RKO Studios, 1957; executive produced The Lucy Show, 1962; produced The Mothers-in-Law, 1967; published autobiography, A Book, 1976.
Awards: Two Emmy awards for Best Situation Comedy, 1952, 1953.
Before long, Arnaz was headlining at La Conga, a New York nightclub. He was discovered there by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who put him in their new Broadway musical, Too Many Girls, in the role of a Latin exchange student. When Too Many Girls was made into a movie, Arnaz was asked to reprise his stage role. The film also starred a redheaded actress named Lucille Ball. When the two met, "Desi was in greasy makeup and old clothes, and I thought he wasn't so hot," she later recalled, according to People. Arnaz had the same impression of Ball, dressed in her bedraggled costume and sporting a fake black eye. Both of them quickly overcame their first impressions and, by all accounts, the chemistry between them was undeniable. In one of their first scenes together, Arnaz was to take one look at Ball and faint dead away in ecstasy. It didn't take much acting. He was the first man to call her Lucy, rather than her preferred Lucille. Six months later, the 28-year-old B-movie actress and the 23-year-old bandleader were married. They eloped in Connecticut with a ring bought at the last minute at a Woolworth's. They settled just outside Los Angeles in Chatsworth, California, on a five-acre ranch they called Desilu.
For the next few years, the couple—not yet Hollywood royalty—made their living with various projects in film, theater, and radio. Arnaz was drafted to serve in World War II in May of 1943, though an injury kept him on noncombat duty at a hospital near Chatsworth. Between touring with his band and his time away for military service, Arnaz, a notorious ladies' man, had plenty of freedom for extramarital affairs. In September of 1944 Ball, fed up with her husband's infidelity, filed divorce papers, but the couple reconciled and the process was never finalized. Arnaz received critical praise for his role in the film Bataan, and one columnist even predicted he would be the next Rudolph Valentino. Despite these successes, he was having a tough time breaking into film because of his thick accent. The now-22-piece Arnaz Orchestra was doing very well, though, and led to a role in the film Cuban Pete, which billed him as "The Rumba-Rhythm King."
Happy TV Couple
By 1948, the year Milton Berle first appeared on television, television sets existed in one million American living rooms. In one year's time, Uncle Miltie's popularity had driven that number to four million. Arnaz and Ball formed Desilu productions in 1948 to handle their various appearances and projects. A year later, the two were remarried in an official Catholic ceremony. By 1950 they were both successful radio stars. Arnaz was the bandleader for Bob Hope's radio show, then was the host of Your Tropical Trip, a game show.
While still making films during the late 1940s, Ball starred as the flaky housewife in a hit radio comedy called My Favorite Husband. When CBS television decided to put My Favorite Husband on the air, Ball demanded that Arnaz be cast to play her husband. The studio balked—who would believe Ball married to a "wop?" one executive exclaimed, according to American Heritage, confusing his ethnic slurs. "What do you mean nobody'll believe it?" Ball shot back, "We are married." The pilot was shot and called The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show. On it, Arnaz played a bandleader, essentially recreating his real-life persona. Even still, CBS executives wanted to "Keep the redhead, but ditch the Cuban," according to American Heritage. To appease CBS, Arnaz made an offer. Ball and Arnaz agreed to a huge salary cut, in exchange for sole ownership of the show. Thinking they weren't giving up much, CBS executives quickly agreed. They could not have been more wrong—the deal turned out to be the bargain of the century for Ball and Arnaz. Fifty years after the show's premiere, a single episode of I Love Lucy cost $100,000 to air. It was a multi-million dollar error for CBS.
For the first time in their marriage, Ball and Arnaz were working and living together for an extended period of time. Their new schedule provided a chance for them to work on their relationship and have children. "All their hopes, plans, and dreams for a happy future were wrapped up in that sitcom," daughter Lucie Arnaz later wrote in the book I Love Lucy. Lucie Desiree Arnaz was born in 1951, before the show's debut. Ball and Arnaz played Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, a lovable couple who endeared themselves to the world through the television. Ball played the scatterbrained housewife and Arnaz was a Latin bandleader who acted as her straight man, bursting into fits of Spanish when exasperated with his wife. Through it all, Arnaz always attributed the show's success to his wife, and stepped back and let Ball be the star. After Lucy became pregnant with the couple's real-life son, Desi Jr., Little Ricky—their fictional son—arrived on the show. 44 million people—more than 70 percent of the American television audience—tuned in to watch the episode. Life was cheerful both onscreen and off for the Arnazes. The show won Emmy awards for Best Situation Comedy in both 1952 and 1953.
Always Loved Lucy
With the show's runaway success, the couple grew into an entertainment empire. In addition to I Love Lucy, Desilu produced such television hits as Our Miss Brooks, The Untouchables, and The Danny Thomas Show. The two appeared together in the films The Long, Long Trailer and Forever Darling. They made a fortune on reruns—the first of a current show in television history—that catered to new television owners who had missed the first episodes of the show. Desilu bought RKO Studios, where the couple had first met, in 1957. In its heyday, Desilu grossed about $15 million per year and employed 800 people.
The success took its toll on the couple, and they struggled to maintain their happy persona on the air.
Arnaz worked long hours and spent weekends on his boat in the company of various females, his wife not among them. He drank heavily and his health was jeopardized by a colon condition. He also was known to explode in "abusive fits of anger," according to People. One tale of the pair's volatility included Ball aiming a gun at Arnaz's head and pulling the trigger, only to have a tiny flame light from the end of the barrel, with which Arnaz then casually lit his cigar. "It got so bad that I though it would be better for us not to be together," Ball reportedly said in divorce court in 1960, according to People. After twenty years of marriage, America's favorite couple was splitting up—and there was no kiss-and-make-up reconciliation at the end of the show.
I Love Lucy ran until 1959, and Ball and Arnaz continued as business partners after the divorce. They both remarried, Arnaz to his neighbor, Edie Hirsch. Ball went on to star in The Lucy Show, and Arnaz retired to his 45-acre horse ranch in Corona, California, though he took the occasional cameo role. In 1962 he sold his rights to Ball, who then ran Desilu on her own, producing such popular television shows as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. Arnaz produced the television series The Mothers-In-Law in 1967. In his autobiography, titled A Book, published in 1976, Arnaz wrote: "All I can say is that I loved her very much and, in my own peculiar way, I will always love her…. I Love Lucy was never just a title." Ball visited Arnaz's bedside before he died of lung cancer in 1986.
Arnaz, Desi, A Book, Buccaneer Books., 1976.
Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, MUZE UK Ltd., 1998.
American Heritage, December 1998, p. 20.
People, February 12, 1996, p. 74.
Bandleader, actor, television producer
Desi Arnaz will forever be identified with nightclub entertainer Ricky Ricardo, the character he played on the classic television series I Love Lucy. The role mimicked at least two aspects of his real life: he was married to his costar, Lucille Ball, and before becoming involved in television he made his living as the hardworking leader of a rumba band. His achievements as a musician, actor, producer, and director were all a far cry from the career planned for him while he was growing up in Cuba. The son of a powerful politician and a woman said to be one of the great beauties of Latin America, he spent his youth enjoying his family’s vast wealth. He was to study law at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, then return home to a readymade practice.
Those plans crumbled on August 12, 1933, when the first Batista revolution, in which Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar organized a military coup and eventually became president, swept Cuba. Arnaz’s father was jailed, and his money and property were confiscated. Sixteenyear-old Desi and his mother fled to Miami, Florida, where they spent the next six months negotiating the release of Desi, Sr. Young Desi, who barely spoke English, struggled through classes at St. Patrick’s High School in Miami during the day, then worked to help pay the rent at the dingy boardinghouse that was now home. His first job was cleaning birdcages; he later graduated to working in a railyard, bookkeeping, and driving taxis and trucks.
The expensive education his family had envisioned for Arnaz was now out of the question, so he began considering other ways to advance himself. In 1937 he auditioned as a singer for Miami Beach’s high-class Roney Plaza Hotel. He borrowed a suit for the occasion and convinced his former classmates from St. Patrick’s to crowd the audience at his trial performance. Thanks to their enthusiastic cheering, he was hired to front the Siboney Septet for $50 a week. Bandleader Xavier Cugat saw Arnaz perform at the Roney and asked the young singer to tour with him. The pay was only $35 a week, but the experience and exposure were invaluable. After a year with Cugat, Arnaz confidently struck out on his own and was soon bringing in $750 per week as the headliner at the La Conga Cafe. Before long, he and his newly formed orchestra were playing dates at the best clubs in the United States, including New York City’s Copacabana.
During a Copacabana engagement, Arnaz was spotted by George Abbot, who gave the Cuban a leading role in his musical Too Many Girls. RKO Studios bought
For the Record…
Born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, March 2, 1917, in Santiago, Cuba; immigrated to United States, 1933; died of lung cancer, December 2, 1986, in Del Mar, CA; son of Desiderio Alberto (a politician) and Lolita (de Acha) Arnaz; married Lucille Ball (an actress), November 30, 1940 (divorced, 1960); married Edith Mack Hirsch, March 2, 1963; children: (first marriage) Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, Desi, Jr. Education: Attended Colegic de Dolores and St. Patrick’s High School, Miami, FL.
House singer at the Roney Plaza Hotel, Miami, FL, 1937; vocalist with Xavier Cugat’s orchestra, 1938; leader of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, 1939-51; musical director of Bob Hope’s radio program, 1947-48; host of radio game show/Latin American musical showcase Your Tropical Trip, 1951; costar and executive producer of television comedies I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, 1951-60; president of Desilu Productions, 1951-63. Author of A Book, William Morrow, 1976.
the film rights to the hit show and invited Arnaz to Hollywood to recreate his character. The female lead was filled by an RKO contract actress, Lucille Ball, who became romantically involved with Arnaz soon after they met. Everyone from studio executives to gossip columnists considered the relationship a bad idea, but the pair continued seeing each other even after filming stopped and their careers took them to different parts of the country. On November 14,1940, Ball went to New York City on a personal appearance tour. Arnaz was there, playing the Roxy Theatre. After the band’s last show, Ball and Arnaz eloped, taking their vows before a justice of the peace at the Byram River Beagle Club in Greenwich, Connecticut.
The marriage was troubled from the start, largely due to the conflicting schedules of the two performers. Ball’s contract with RKO kept her tied to Hollywood and necessitated early morning makeup calls. Arnaz traveled constantly with his band, and even when he had a local engagement, he usually arrived home just as his wife was leaving. Although he had parts in several films—Cuban Pete and Holiday in Havana were written especially for him and featured music he composed—his movie career never developed enough to take him away from the nightclub circuit. The couple once estimated that in the first eleven years of their marriage, they spent just three years’ time together and paid more than $29,000 in telephone and telegraph charges to each other. Their lives stabilized somewhat during 1946 and 1947, when Arnaz replaced Stan Kenton as the musical director of Bob Hope’s radio show, but in 1948 he headed out on the road again.
Ball saw a way to save her marriage when CBS approached her in 1949 with the idea of turning her very successful radio program, My Favorite Husband, into a television show. She agreed, on the condition that Arnaz would be cast opposite her, thereby giving him a job that would not require constant touring. CBS rejected the idea, believing that the notion of an all-American woman married to a Cuban orchestra leader would be unacceptable to audiences. To prove them wrong, Arnaz and Ball put together an ambitious vaudeville revue featuring a series of comic routines about a woman trying to crash her bandleader husband’s show. Vaudeville was nearly dead at the time, but the Lucy-Desi act drew rave reviews and large audiences. Once convinced, CBS agreed to let Arnaz costar in Ball’s television show, I Love Lucy.
The program was an immediate success and is now regarded as a classic of television comedy. Arnaz was the perfect foil for Ball’s antics, and his musical numbers, set in the fictional Tropicana nightclub, lent variety and interest to the program. Behind the camera, Arnaz immersed himself in work as the head of Desilu Productions, the couple’s production team, and proved to be a shrewd television executive. He produced many other popular series, including December Bride, Our Miss Brooks, The Untouchables, and The Danny Thomas Show, and he created the three-camera technique still used for filming situation comedies.
Despite all efforts to save it, the Arnaz marriage ended in divorce in 1960, and the Lucy-Desi comedy partnership terminated as well. Arnaz went into semiretirement a few years later, spending most of his time on his horse farm in Del Mar, California. He did occasional television work, producing several pilots and the comedy series The Mothers-in-Law. In 1982 he played a straight dramatic role in Francis Coppola’s film The Escape Artist. Poor health plagued him throughout the 1970s aand 1980s, however, and in 1986 he died of lung cancer at his home in Del Mar.
Andrews, Bart, The “I Love Lucy” Book, Doubleday, 1985.
Arnaz, Desi, A Book, William Morrow, 1976.
Look, June 3, 1952.
Newsweek, February 18, 1952.
New York Times, December 3, 1986.
People, February 18, 1991.
Time, June 6, 1952, December 15, 1986.
Desi Arnaz (1917-1986) is best known for the popular 1950s television show I Love Lucy, a situation comedy that he helped create along with his wife Lucille Ball, to whom he was married from 1940 to 1960. Arnaz played "Ricky Ricardo," a struggling Cuban-born bandleader whose high-spirited wife Lucy (played by Ball) was forever engaged in some sort of comedic mischief. Behind the scenes, Arnaz was known as a savvy businessman and producer and a trailblazer in the early years of television.
Although network executives were at first reluctant to cast the heavily accented Arnaz alongside an all-American redhead like Lucy, Arnaz and Ball agreed to contribute $39,000 from their salaries toward production costs of I Love Lucy to ensure that the series would be launched. The comedy quickly emerged as one of the most popular shows of the decade. As Scholastic Update noted in 1988, Arnaz's role on the show helped Americans to "accept Hispanic immigrants not just as exotic outsiders, but as Hispanic-Americans."
Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y De Acha was born on March 2, 1917 in Santiago, Cuba. His father Desiderio was mayor of Santiago and a wealthy property owner whose holdings included a cattle ranch, two dairy farms, and a villa on a small island in Santiago Bay. Desi's mother, the former Dolores de Acha, was the daughter of one of the founders of the Bacardi rum company. As a teenager, Arnaz was expected to attend college before embarking on a career in law and politics.
However, political unrest in Cuba dramatically changed the direction of Arnaz's life. In August 1933, the Arnaz home in Santiago was burned and ransacked. While Arnaz and his mother managed to escape to safety, his father, a newly elected congressman, was put in prison. While there, he was advised by the new chief of state, Fulgencio Batista, that he would be freed if he left the country. Promising to send for his wife (whom he'd later divorce) and son, Arnaz's father set out for Miami.
In June 1934, the 17-year-old Desi arrived in America and was greeted by his father, who had established an import-export company with two other refugees in Miami. To save money, father and son lived in the company warehouse and ate cans of pork-and-beans. They used baseball bats to ward off the rats that scurried through the building. After school, young Arnaz worked cleaning bird cages for a man who sold canaries on consignment in area drug stores.
During this time, Arnaz was recommended to a band-leader by a girlfriend's grandfather. Armed with a used guitar purchased for $5 from a pawnshop and a facility with the instrument—he'd used it often in Cuba to serenade the opposite sex—Arnaz persuaded his father to let him take this new $39-a-week job at the Roney Plaza Hotel. Xavier Cugat, the "king" of Latin dance music soon discovered the young musician. Upon graduating from high school and serving a stint in the Cugat orchestra, Arnaz debuted his own band in Miami Beach in December 1937.
The Desi Arnaz Orchestra won favorable reviews in New York and Miami. Collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, asked the young orchestra leader to audition for their upcoming Broadway musical Too Many Girls. Arnaz landed the part of the Latin American exchange student. Soon the 23-year-old was on his way to Hollywood to appear in the film version of the musical, starring 28-year-old studio actress, Lucille Ball.
"Lucy and Desi's first scene together in the movie Too Many Girls required him to take one glance at her and swoon dead away in ecstasy," commented Warren G. Harris in Lucy & Desi. "It didn't take much acting skill; by then, they were already in love in real life." The relationship was passionate and tumultuous from the start, punctuated by clashes of temper and jealousy. Many of the disagreements centered on Arnaz's flirtatious nature. Still, they came to care deeply for one another. Arnaz called her "Lucy" even though she had long called herself "Lucille." "I didn't like the name Lucille," Arnaz recalled in his autobiography. "That name had been used by other men. 'Lucy' was mine alone."
Lucy and Desi
On November 30, 1940, Ball and Arnaz were married in Connecticut with a wedding ring purchased at the last minute from Woolworth's. "Eloping with Desi was the most daring thing I ever did in my life," Ball recalled, according to Lucy & Desi. "I never fell in love with anyone quite so fast. He was very handsome and romantic. But he also frightened me, he was so wild. I knew I shouldn't marry him, but that was one of the biggest attractions." Upon returning to California, the couple settled into a five-acre ranch in Chatsworth, just outside of Los Angeles. Mindful of the practice of naming their residence after themselves as actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford had done, the couple decided on Desilu after eliminating such other possibilities as Arnaball, Ballarnaz, and Ludesi.
In May 1943, Arnaz received his draft notice to serve in World War II. Because of an injury, however, he saw only non-combat duty at Birmingham Hospital, 15 minutes away from Desilu. Convinced that Arnaz was being unfaithful to her, Ball filed for divorce in September of 1944. The divorce, though, was voided by a quick reconciliation.
Arnaz' officially shortened his name during his stint in the service (from Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha to Desi Arnaz). When his military service concluded, he returned to Hollywood, only to find his opportunities limited by his heavy accent. Despite critical acclaim for his performance in the movie Batman and gossip columnist Louella Parson's prediction that he'd be the next Rudolph Valentino, Arnaz found it difficult to secure significant parts. The new 22-piece Arnaz Orchestra, though, was getting favorable reviews, and Arnaz eventually landed a role in the movie Cuban Pete, in which he was touted as "The Rhumba-Rhythm King."
In 1948, Arnaz and Ball formed Desilu Productions to coordinate their various stage, screen, and radio activities. A year later, Arnaz asked Ball to marry him again—this time in an official Catholic ceremony. The ceremony was later played out again, albeit in a more fanciful manner, in an episode of I Love Lucy.
By 1950, Arnaz and Ball had both established themselves in the medium of radio. Arnaz first served as the bandleader for Bob Hope's radio show, then as host of the musical quiz show Your Tropical Trip; Ball portrayed the scatterbrained housewife on the radio serial My Favorite Husband. When the CBS television network decided to turn My Favorite Husband into a TV series, Ball insisted that Arnaz be cast as her husband. As the show's producer as well as its leading man, Arnaz helped bring movie-quality techniques to live television and negotiated a deal whereby Desilu retained full ownership of the show.
Fame and Fortune
Ball gave birth to the couple's first child, Lucie Desiree, on July 17, 1951, just as scriptwriters were putting the finishing touches on I Love Lucy for the show's October 15, 1951 premiere. The principal characters were Ricky Ricardo, a struggling Latin bandleader who would burst into Spanish whenever he got particularly exasperated, and his wife Lucy, a wacky housewife with showbiz aspirations but no real talent. Before long, I Love Lucy was a smash hit, televised around the world. "Rather than repelling audiences as CBS had feared," wrote Harris, "Desi's flamboyant Cuban-ness apparently had the opposite effect of attracting viewers." Casting Arnaz as a TV husband was "a case of awkwardness being recognized as an asset," observed a critic for the New York Times. The show won Emmy awards in 1952 and 1953 for best situation comedy.
As stars of the most popular show in America, Arnaz and Ball were under constant pressure to live up to the happily married image of their TV counterparts. But while tensions in the marriage increased, the series' popularity continued to grow. More Americans watched the January 13, 1953, episode featuring the birth of "Little Ricky" than tuned in to the inauguration of President Eisenhower, according to the New York Times. Lucille Ball gave birth to Desi Jr., the very same day.
Arnaz attributed the success of the show mostly to his wife's performance as the daffy Lucy. Madelyn Pugh Davis, a writer for the show, said in People magazine in 1991: "He always knew she was the star. Never in all those years did I ever hear him say, Where's my part?" Under Arnaz's direction, Desilu Productions became a media giant. In 1955 I Love Lucy began re-broadcasting earlier episodes—the first reruns ever shown of a current prime-time show—because so many viewers with brand-new televisions had missed the show's early years. As the New York Times observed, "The appeal of reusable filmed programs led eventually to a seismic shift in television production from New York to Hollywood, and made the program's creators millionaires."
In addition to I Love Lucy, Desilu produced such hits as Our Miss Brooks, The Untouchables, and The Danny Thomas Show. Arnaz and Ball also appeared together in movies such as The Long, Long Trailer and Forever, Darling. In 1957, Desilu bought RKO Studios, where he and Ball had met in 1940. By the mid-195Os Desilu was an empire that grossed about $15 million annually and employed 800 people.
Arnaz's personal life, however, was less healthy. Diagnosed with diverticulitis, a disease of the colon, he worked out a deal with CBS to replace I Love Lucy with a series of one-hour specials. Of greater importance, though, was the state of his marriage with Ball. Arnaz's well-documented drinking and womanizing took a tremendous toll on the relationship. "The more our love life deteriorated, the more we fought, the more unhappy we were, the more I drank," Arnaz wrote in his autobiography. "The one thing I have never been able to do is work and play concurrently and in moderation, whatever that means."
On March 2, 1960, Arnaz's forty-third birthday, I Love Lucy was brought to a close after 179 half-hour episodes, 13 one-hour specials and nine years on the air. Ending with the usual kiss-and-make-up ending, the last show gave no inkling about the state of the marriage off the air. On the following day, March 3, 1960, Ball filed for a divorce, which, for the sake of the two children, was amicable. Two years later, in 1962, Arnaz pulled out of Desilu Productions, selling his stock to Ball for $3 million. Running Desilu had "ceased to be fun," he said in his autobiography. "I was happier cleaning birdcages and chasing rats."
Arnaz spent much of his time immediately after the divorce on his 45-acre horse-breeding farm in Corona, California. Still, his bond with Ball was never completely severed, and, in the fall of 1962, he was brought in as executive producer of his ex-wife's new series The Lucy Show.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Arnaz remained active in show business. In 1967, he launched the NBC series The Mothers-in-Law, starring Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard. In 1976, Arnaz published his autobiography, A Book, which included an epilogue about Ball that stated, "I loved her very much and, in my own and perhaps peculiar way, I will always love her." Arnaz appeared on Saturday Night Live with Desi Jr. to promote the book.
In 1986, after years of smoking four or five Cuban cigars a day, Arnaz was diagnosed with lung cancer. Ball stayed with him for several hours before he lapsed into a coma. He died in the arms of his daughter, Lucie, on December 2, 1986. He was "a good daddy, but a lonely man at times, one who chose a difficult path," she said of him in Lucy & Desi.
Harris, Warren G., Lucy & Desi, Thorndike Press, 1992.
Metz, Robert, CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye, Playboy Press, 1975. □