I Love Lucy was born on a hot Saturday afternoon in August, 1948. It would be three years until the title and faces would become familiar, but the genesis had its birth at that precise moment: when comedy radio writer Jess Oppenheimer received a phone call from CBS asking him to substitute for their new radio program My Favorite Husband.
Lucille Ball had been a Hollywood player since the late ‘30s, but had yet to become a formidable star. Shining in Stage Door and DuBarry Was a Lady, Ball still fell short of top-billing supremacy. By the late ‘40s, she had become bored of her prospects in film and made the decision to go on a national stage tour adaptation of Dream Girl— something that cemented the fact Ball was happiest when performing in front of a live audience.
To prove her point, Ball took on a weekly radio sitcom at CBS: My Favorite Husband. Co-starring Richard Denning as her long-suffering spouse, it ran for three successful years (1948 -51). It was on this show that Ball began to fashion the character who would become the the crowning achievement of her career, and one of the most iconic figures in television history: Lucy Ricardo.
Oppenheimer’s influence was immediate and, in fact, everlasting: after reading the scripts, he made the key decision to make the show’s lead characters, “Mr. and Mrs. Cougat,” into something less sophisticated and “a little more childlike and impulsive…” as Oppenheimer recalled in his memoir Laughs, Luck and Lucy, “she would be a stage-struck schemer with an overactive imagination that got her into embarrassing situations.”
Oppenheimer’s script resulted in a CBS contract and the job as head scribe for the show.
An early Oppenheimer script, Liz Sells Dresses, is absolutely indicative of the soon-to-be Lucy:
George [looking over Liz’s finances]:
“… What’s this “DICR: $39.50?”
“DICR… Oh I know. Dress I Couldn’t Resist. You should be glad I bought that dress too, because I made $20 by doing it.”
“You made $20?”
“Absolutely. I bought that dress on sale at Kramer’s for $39.50 and the identical same dress was selling at Gordon’s for $59.50. So I made $20.”
“But you don’t have that $20!”
“I know, I spent it on a hat to go with the dress.”
Oppenheimer had a less-than-auspicious beginning with Lucy. But it didn’t take long for him to come to the conclusion that “despite her tough demeanor, she was actually quite insecure and required somebody to lean on; she really needed to be dominated. My first inkling of this had come a week earlir, when I was directing her in a scene with her costar, Dick Denning. In the scene, Dick, normally a nice, passive fellow, really had to light into her and tell her off; he really read the riot act to her. Lucy came over to me after the first run-through with her eyes all lit up.
‘Write more scenes like that,’ she said. ‘That’s great! Let him really tell me off.’
Surprised by her reaction, I simply told her ‘Okay.’ But I remember thinking to myself, ‘And I see how I have to act with you in the future too.’”
Oppenheimer eventually changed the surname “Cougat” to the more everyday “Cooper” and got Ball to openly embrace her natural gift for live improv. “I remember telling Lucy to ‘let go,’” says Oppenheimer. “To act it out … but she was afraid to try. So one day after rehearsal I gave her a couple of Jack Benny tickets. She looked at me blankly:
‘What are these for?’
“I want you to go to school,’ I told her.”
It did the trick. When Lucy came in for the next rehearsal, I could see she was excited. “Oh my god Jess,” she gushed, “I didn’t realize!” Jack Benny would, one day, return the compliment: After I Love Lucy had hit the small-screen and was America’s reigning show on TV, Benny required all of his writers “go to school” by attending a live taping of I Love Lucy.
What a priceless lesson, indeed, to have witnessed first-person Lucy slamming a pie into William Holden’s face:
Lucy’s open embrace of her live studio audience was quickly becoming the talk of the town. The Hollywood Reporter said, in 1949, “too bad [Ball’s] grimaces and gestures aren’t visible on the radio.”
Ahhh … what if they were?
It was rather inevitable that this highly “visual” radio show would make a natural transition to the small screen. Ball was one of the first ones to know this, and from the off, made it clear that should My Favorite Husband become a television series, it would not be alongside Denning, but rather her own husband of three years: Desi Arnaz.
CBS threw a fit. An interracial marriage on television? Who would believe, argued the suits, that an All-American redhead glamour-girl would be married to a third-world bandleader?
Oppenheimer himself couldn’t have bested Ball’s reaction:
“What do you mean nobody will believe it? WE ARE MARRIED!”
As usual, Lucy knew best.
She told the studio that if they wouldn’t let her do a show with Desi, she’d do a show with him. On the road. During the summer of 1950, the couple formed the soon-to-be famous Desilu Productions, created a Vaudeville act and took it across country. It was a smashing success. But it still took the interest of rival network NBC to get CBS to swallow their pride and put Arnaz contract.
My Favorite Husband’s television incarnation may have been a reality on CBS letterhead, but quite a few months of creative pow-wowing were still ahead. By Desi’s 34th birthday, March 2 1951, Oppenheimer had solved his problem. Desi became Ricky: a working class Cuban bandleader who loved Lucy, his mischievous redhead wife. It would give him a first class billing, as the titular possessive “I”, while still giving Ball top billing as “Lucy”: I Love Lucy debuted on American television on October 15, 1951.
63 years later, still feeling the show’s seismic influence.