Lucille Ball

Icons of the Century

The red hair, the giant eyes, the rubber face: Those were the physical tools that Lucille Ball used to ply her comic craft so expertly. In the process of trying to make viewers laugh, she also stole their hearts.

When she died in 1989 at 78, the White House issued a statement noting that “no television program in history was better-named than ‘I Love Lucy.’ … She was Lucy, and she was loved.”

The depth of feeling for Ball spoke to the power of the medium she helped popularize. Thanks to television, viewers around the world would form an intimate bond with the comedienne, thinking of her not as a star like Bogart or Bacall but as a part of their extended family who dropped by on Monday nights. It’s no surprise that the episode including the birth of her small-screen son was seen by more Americans than Ike’s inauguration.

But at first she had to fight CBS, who didn’t want anything to do with Desi — the Desi that became one of the top straight men ever to roll his eyes on TV. To prove that the audience would accept them as a couple, Lucy and Desi created a vaudeville act and toured with it. It got rave reviews — “a socko new act,” said Variety — and CBS gave in.

Beyond sitcom stardom, the former Goldwyn Girl from Jamestown, N.Y., was the first woman to run a major TV studio, Desilu Prods., in the process giving birth to everything from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to “Star Trek.” She starred in three more comedies for CBS, but “I Love Lucy” was all she needed to cement her status as a legend.

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