The world may have loved Lucy, but the celebrated comedian wasn’t in love with the state of television during the final years of her life.
David Fantle and Tom Johnson, two longtime close friends from Minnesota, recently co-wrote “Hollywood Heydey,” which features 75 interviews they conducted with golden age stars.
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The pair first began traveling to Los Angeles from St. Paul in 1975 as teenagers to meet with their screen idols, including Fred Astaire, Bob Hope, James Cagney and others.
Lucille Ball was one of their many subjects in September 1980. She died in 1989 at age 77.
Fantle told Fox News Ball was far from the beloved screwball housewife Lucy Ricardo in “I Love Lucy,” which aired from 1951 until 1957, as well as “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour” from 1957 until 1960.
He insisted Ball, by then a veteran actress and Hollywood businesswoman, was disappointed with the direction television was taking.
“She used the term ‘downhill’ and ‘leaving us,’” Fantle recalled. “She was very cynical about the state of television back then we interviewed her… She was no-nonsense. She was not funny. Instead, she was all business.
“She was really the first woman superstar to break the glass ceiling in Hollywood as not just as a performer, but as a movie mogul and executive.”
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And Ball had good reason to criticize television during those years. The “queen of comedy” first became a contract player at RKO in the 1930s and appeared in more than 50 films before she starred in the most successful comedy series on television.
“I literally starved,” Ball told the two students about her early years struggling to perform in New York City before Hollywood came calling. “I was young, very backward and awkward. Vaudeville was the only thing I knew so I tried to break in.
“Unfortunately for me, vaudeville was already dead and gone. The lack of food and work forced me into modeling. I finally became a showgirl and my first job in Hollywood was as a showgirl. I came out here to Los Angeles only expecting to stay for six weeks. I’ve never left.”
The New York Times reported her character gave birth to Little Ricky on the same night she actually welcomed her second child. Forty-four million people tuned in and 1 million viewers responded with congratulatory messages to CBS. “I Love Lucy” aired in syndication in more than 80 countries.
When cameras weren’t rolling, Ball headed Desilu Productions, which was described as one of the biggest and most successful television companies in Hollywood. In 1968, she also headed Lucille Ball Productions.
Ball told the reporters that the secret behind her lasting success was having an excellent team of writers who expertly crafted stories audiences would easily fall head over heels for.
“She told us, ‘We don’t ad-lib,’” said Fantle. “‘We read the lines that the writers gave us for ‘I Love Lucy’… She was so much more than this wild and crazy redhead that the public knows.”
“That time we spent in her house with [second husband] Gary Morton hovering in the background, she was chairman of the board,” added Johnson. “It was like a business meeting. She was very, very fascinating, but very, very candid. We always appreciated it, that she wouldn’t sugar-coat anything.”
At the time, Ball told Fantle and Johnson she spent her later years watching game shows, “60 Minutes” and “20/20.” And while she wasn’t a fan of many shows on air, she enjoyed the performance of Alan Alda in “M*A*S*H*”, as well as others in “Taxi.”
But one person she always made time to observe on the screen was her alleged rival, Vivan Vance, who played opposite Ball as Ricardo’s frumpy sidekick Ethel Mertz in “I Love Lucy.”
While rumors have long persisted the two women loathed each other when cameras stopped rolling, Fantle claimed Ball had a completely different impression of the actress.
“She thought the world of Vivian,” he explained. “Maybe there were some artistic differences on the show. The biggest artistic difference in the show was really between Vivian Vance and William Frawley (on-screen husband Fred Mertz). They were at each other all the time.
“The other thing that has been documented is that Vivian and Lucy were pretty much close in age, but they purposely made Vivian look frumpier and Lucy a little more glamorous.
“But Lucy worked with Vivian for many years, not just in ‘I Love Lucy’ but in some of those subsequent TV shows Lucille did. She had nothing, but adulation for Vivian when we were with her.”
Johnson added Vance was one of the few performers who could actually give Ball “a real belly laugh,” as she described it.
“She said the only person she would really watch when she ever looked at her own TV shows was Vivian Vance,” said Johnson. “She always watched her. She said, ‘God bless her.’ She loved working with her… She genuinely thought Vivian Vance was a crackup. She loved her. Probably second only to Dean Martin as someone who could make her laugh.”
Vance died in 1979 at age 70 from cancer.
If there was one thing Ball wanted the world to know about her time on “I Love Lucy” was how determined the cast was to produce an iconic comedy series that was based on talented writing.
“She said, ‘I hope you have your recorder on because I want your readers to know this,’” said Fantle. “She wanted to dispel two things. She said, ‘All these shows were goofy, slapstick predicaments. But those predicaments, that was a small fraction of the episode.’ She wanted people to know despite what they thought, the slapstick and the zaniness was just a tiny part of the series.
“The other thing she wanted people to know that there was no ad-libbing (on ‘I Love Lucy’). Absolutely not. She said, ‘We knew our characters inside and out. There was no ad-libbing. We came in, read the script and did our jobs.’”