Desi Arnaz, a refugee Cuban conga player, loved Lucy for 10 of the most entertaining and profitable years in television history.
From Oct. 15, 1951, to Sept. 24, 1961, Arnaz was Ricky Ricardo on the "I Love Lucy" TV series, the forbearing spouse of a wacky wife who spent much of her time trying to convince her musician husband that she too belonged in show business.
Arnaz's broken English, coupled with the comedic skills of Ball and complemented by their neighbors and friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz, conspired to transform that simple plot line into a show that for 190 episodes and through thousands of reruns kept 10 million American families glued to the 15 million TV sets then extant in the land.
Desi, son of the mayor of Santiago, had come to the United States in 1933, when he was 16. He and his father were fleeing a revolution.
They landed in Miami and, from odd jobs, young Desi progressed to playing guitar and drums with a rumba band. Xavier Cugat hired him and took him to New York, but Arnaz was back in Miami before he was 20, this time leading his own band.
He landed a role in a Broadway show, "Too Many Girls," and met Ball when he came to Hollywood to make a film of that stage production. Within six months of their meeting, they had married.
In 1951, when CBS decided to move her radio series, "My Favorite Husband," to television, Ball insisted that Arnaz be a part of the show so that they could be together. The couple also insisted that the show be filmed in front of a live audience and that they be allowed to film it in California rather than in New York, where most national television was then being done.
The network was hesitant about Arnaz's appeal, so the two went on a national personal appearance tour that proved so popular that CBS had to relent.
They borrowed $5,000 and formed Desilu Productions to produce a pilot episode of what became "I Love Lucy." With cinematographer Karl Freund, Arnaz pioneered a three-camera filming technique that is widespread today in which three cameras simultaneously film from different angles, with a final program combined later.
By 1957 Desilu was doing well enough to purchase RKO Studios for $6 million and produce during the seasons of 1955-57 nearly 700 half-hours of television for networks and syndication. The 19 shows they produced included "Our Miss Brooks," "December Bride" and "The Danny Thomas Show."
Through "Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse" productions came the prototypes of such later dramatic triumphs as "Twilight Zone" and "Mission: Impossible." Arnaz also produced in 1959 "The Untouchables," a violent series about special agents battling mobsters in the Prohibition era that was the genesis of a television crime wave over the next few years.
He made a producing comeback in 1967 with "The Mothers-in-Law" television series and made scattered appearances throughout the 1970s. In 1982 he made a final film appearance in Francis Ford Coppola's production "The Escape Artist."
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