Editorial Feature

Desi Arnaz: A Pioneer of the Television Sitcom

Discover how the I Love Lucy star changed TV

Desi Arnaz was a Cuban-born American actor, musician, and TV producer. He is best known for his role as Ricky Ricardo in the cult classic American TV sitcom I Love Lucy. Co-starring alongside his then-wife Lucille Ball, the pair are credited as the inventors of the syndicated rerun as they were more than just actors in the show – they were key in making it into such a success. The show ran from 1951-1957 and spanned six seasons with 180 half-hour episodes in total, which was previously unheard of for a TV show.

Arnaz became part of one of the USA’s most watched shows, but his life wasn’t always glitz and glam, even if it might have seemed that way in the beginning. Born into a prominent Cuban family in Santiago in 1917, Arnaz’s father, Desiderio Arnaz II, was mayor of Santiago, the original capital of Cuba. His mother, Dolores de Acha, was the daughter of one of the founders of the Bacardi Rum Company. If that wasn’t enough of a claim to fame, Arnaz’s grandfather, Don Desiderio, was a physician who accompanied Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898.

Desi Arnaz leading the studio band as Maurice Chevalier sings by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Desi Arnaz by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

The performer’s early years were fairly privileged, growing up in amazing houses and being taken on grand vacations. A plan for Arnaz’s career had already been put in place for him to attend Notre Dame University and become an attorney. But in 1934, disaster struck the family when Fulgencio Batista rallied the Cuban army against the corrupt Machado regime. All officials associated with the existing power structure – including Arnaz’s father – were thrown in jail. Arnaz saw the arrest of his father and the destruction of his home. Once he was released, the family relocated to Miami for a quieter, more modest life, where his father began a small company which imported tiles for builders.

Having adjusted to life in Miami well, at 19 years old Arnaz had his first brush with show business. He was hired to play guitar and sing in a small rhumba band – the Siboney Septet at the Roney Plaza Hotel in Miami Beach. It wasn’t long after that he was discovered by famous musician Xaviar Cugat, who asked him to join his band.

Arnaz stayed with Cugat’s band for a year, then broke away to form his own in 1937. His new band found success when Arnaz introduced the conga line to Miami, a dance that was a mainstay in Cuban carnivals. The dance spread to New York when Arnaz’s band played at the La Conga Club.

Desi Arnaz leading the studio band as they play by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Desi Arnaz on set by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

In 1939, his musical talents landed him a role on Broadway in the musical Too Many Girls. He then went to Hollywood the next year to appear in the show’s movie version by RKO Pictures. Lucille Ball was one of Arnaz’s costars and there saw the beginning of their romance. Things happened fast for the pair, as Arnaz and Ball eloped in November 1940.

Arnaz appeared in several movies such as Bataan in 1943, up until he received his draft notice. Before reporting he injured his knee and was classified for limited service in the United States Army during World War II while he completed his recruit training. He was assigned to direct United Service Organization (USO) programs at a military hospital in the San Fernando Valley.

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Following his discharge from the Army, Arnaz formed another band and played and recorded music, while Ball continued to perform on television and radio. Then in 1951, art imitated life as Arnaz co-starred in the premiere of I Love Lucy, in which he played a fictionalized version of himself – a Cuban orchestra leader called Enrique “Ricky” Ricardo. He acted alongside his real-life wife Ball, who played Ricky’s wife, Lucy.

The show came about after television executives wanted Ball to adapt her popular radio series My Favorite Husband for television. Ball insisted on Arnaz playing her on-air husband so the two would be able to spend more time together. At first it was met with resistance from CBS producers as they were told that Arnaz’s Cuban accent and Latin style would “not be agreeable to American viewers”.

In the summer before I Love Lucy, Arnaz and Ball embarked on a tour together in a live vaudeville act they developed with Pepito Pérez and Ball’s radio show writers – it proved popular and the couple knew it would translate to screen just as well. In fact, the work created during this time actually informed the majority of the pilot episode of the show, including Lucy’s memorable seal routine. Ball and Arnaz formed Desilu Productions that same year, combining their names. The company allowed the pair to produce the show in the way they wanted.

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball filming by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball on set of the Desi-Lucy Show by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

A key component of I Love Lucy that was important to Arnaz and the show’s other creator Jess Oppenheimer (who Ball nicknamed “the brains” of the whole thing), was that it needed to work in front of a live audience to create the kind of comic energy that Ball had created on the radio. The idea of a film studio that could accommodate an audience was a new one at the time, but they managed to find General Service Studios in Hollywood, which allowed them to renovate two studios to fit in a big audience.

Audience reactions in I Love Lucy were live, which created far more authentic laughter than the canned laughs most sitcoms had. Another key difference with the show was that it was shot using three cameras, as opposed to using a one-camera setup. This process eliminated the need for an audience to view and react to a scene three or four times for all necessary angles to be filmed. It also allowed scenes to be performed in sequence, plus retakes were rare and dialogue mistakes were often played off for the sake of continuity.

Lucille Ball on set by Loomis Dean (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball on set by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Another bright idea from Arnaz came during I Love Lucy’s second season when it was discovered Ball was pregnant with the couple’s first child. The team weren’t able to fulfil the show’s 39 episode season so Arnaz and Oppenheimer decided to rebroadcast popular episodes of the first season to help give Ball enough time to recuperate after giving birth. This meant fewer episodes had to be filmed. The move was an unexpected ratings winner and essentially gave birth to the concept of the “rerun”, which would later lead to the hugely profitable rerun syndication market.

I Love Lucy continued to be a huge success, helped in part by the show maintaining what Arnaz termed “basic good taste”. It seems like a moral obligation to modern audiences now, but early on Ball and Arnaz were determined to avoid jokes that centered on ethinic stereotypes and humor based on physical handicaps or mental disabilities. The exception, according to Arnaz, was making fun of his character Ricky’s accent, but the jokes only worked when Lucy did the mimicking.

After the conclusion of the sixth season, Arnaz and Ball decided to cut down the number of episodes that were filmed. Instead, they extended I Love Lucy to 60 minutes, with a guest star each episode. They renamed the show The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, also known as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. It saw the production of 13 one hour-long episodes that aired from 1957 to 1960.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on the set of I Love Lucy by Loomis Dean (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Desi Arnaz by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Behind the scenes of the show’s succcess, Arnaz and Ball’s marriage was rocky. Eventually it reached breaking point. In 1960, on March 2, Arnaz's birthday and the day after the last hour-long episode was filmed, Ball filed for divorce. When the final episode aired April 1, the “playful, yet passionate” kiss at the end was all the more poignant as the world already knew that the Hollywood marriage was over.

In 1962, two years after their marriage dissolved, Lucy bought out Desi's shares of Desilu Productions, becoming the studio's sole owner. She eventually sold off Desilu in 1967 to Gulf+Western, owners of Paramount Pictures. Although both Arnaz and Ball married other spouses after their divorce, they remained friends, and supposedly grew closer in Arnaz’s final decade. "I Love Lucy was never just a title,'' he wrote in the last years of his life.

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

I Love Lucy continues to be held in high esteem by television critics and remains popular. It was one of the first American programs seen on British television and reruns of the show are still shown internationally, building up a cult following. In the years after I Love Lucy, Arnaz became a producer of several other TV shows and also co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show, as well as appearing as a guest host on Saturday Night Live with his son Desi Arnaz Jr.

Eventually Arnaz moved full-time to California, where he lived the rest of his life in semi-retirement, owning a horse breeding farm nearby and racing thoroughbreds, while also teaching some classes at San Diego State University. Arnaz died in 1986 at the age of 69, after being diagnosed with lung cancer just months before. His legacy lives on in numerous ways: through his two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – one for his contributions to motion pictures and the other for television; through the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in Jamestown, New York; and for the way he and Ball changed how television sitcoms could be viewed and enjoyed.

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