This five-time Emmy Award-winning icon had a career full of projects that paved the way for women in film and television. Lucille Ball was born on August 6, 1911 in Jamestown, New York but managed to have an impact on the entire nation. We know her as the star of the 1951 sitcom I Love Lucy and for her roles in various films throughout the 20th century. But she didn’t start off on the screen in the way we imagine.
After attending a drama school in New York City, Ball ignited her career in 1929 as a model under the name Diane Belmont. Though her initial attempts in theater were rejected, her modeling work impressed the Hollywood studios and earned her roles in Roman Scandals and Kid Millions among others. In the latter half of the 1930s and early ‘40s, Ball appeared in RKO Radio Pictures films, usually cast as a chorus girl. This also happened to be when she met her husband, Desi Arnaz, who was a Cuban bandleader and fellow actor.
Her film success meant she stayed booked and busy until she eventually took the lead rather than filling supporting roles. Ball and Arnaz kept their careers separate for the next decade as Ball landed major comedies like The Big Street with Henry Fonda and Fancy Pants with Bob Hope.
In 1950, however, she and Arnaz started Desilu Productions which led to the making of the instantly popular I Love Lucy. This would become a six-year-long run of a sitcom starring the two of them in a comedy version of their real lives. Although Ball held comedic roles before, I Love Lucy was the first time she really let her comedic talents shine.
Lucy’s character was a witty housewife who regularly made up schemes to get herself out of the house. The character showed off Ball’s knack for comedic timing, physical comedy, and her range for developing a character. The sitcom set the standard in terms of technical innovation and for sitcoms in decades to come. Despite only producing new episodes for six years, I Love Lucy was popular in reruns for much longer.
Though the I Love Lucy era passed, Ball’s career was nowhere near its end. By the time the sitcom ended, Desilu Productions acquired RKO Pictures. They produced iconic television shows like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek making it one of the major companies in an extremely competitive field. And when Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960, Ball became president of Desilu two years later. This is a monumental moment in TV history – Lucille Ball was the first, and only woman at the time, to own and lead a major Hollywood production company.
So, of course, the ball kept rolling. She took a short break from TV and starred in the Broadway musical Wildcat from 1960-1961. Her rapid return to television in 1962 took off with another namesake, The Lucy Show. That’s right. Another successful show based on her life. From 1962 to 1968, the widowed Lucy Carmichael raised her children while living with her divorcee friend Vivien. It was a clear and bold follow-up to divorcing Arnaz.
In 1967, she sold Desilu Productions to start her own company, Lucille Ball Productions. Ball’s company produced her third series, Here’s Lucy, which included her real children, Lucie and Desi Jr., from 1968 to 1974. And finally, she produced a fourth series called Life with Lucy which, unfortunately, only aired for two months in 1986. Nonetheless, it’s remarkable that she got four different productions based on her life off the ground successfully. Her dedication and talent in the industry certainly carved her position in history as a TV icon.
This is, however, where we reach the end of such an incredible career. Ball passed three years later in 1989 at the age of 77. Featured in over 80 films and TV shows, she spent her entire life acting and influenced future generations of actors and comedians. Her legacy continues well into the 21st century. The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Museum is a popular tourist spot in her hometown of Jamestown, New York.
Even if you aren’t in film or television, reflecting on Lucille Ball’s life and career brings inspiration for hard work and determination. What a wonderful way to celebrate her birthday. If there’s one thing Ball might want us to get from her work, it’s to try, try, and try again, even if you fail. You can even take her word for it: “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.”
To continue honoring Lucille Ball’s birthday, read about some of her most iconic quotes here!