Desi Arnaz told David Letterman that playing Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. But if the network had their way, Arnaz wouldn’t have been the husband at all. They had someone else in mind.
Letterman asked Arnaz during a 1983 episode of Late Night if he knew the show would be such a success. Arnaz laughed off the suggestion.
“That’s kind of one of those things, you know, that if you’re lucky enough maybe as they say ‘once in a lifetime,'” he told Letterman.
Both Arnaz and Ball were successful in their own right before I Love Lucy. Arnaz was a touring musician and bandleader. Lucille Ball had a popular radio show called My Favorite Husband. CBS approached Ball about turning it into a TV show, but she said she would only do it if Arnaz could play her husband.
There had never been an interracial marriage on television before, and CBS didn’t want to be the first to break that barrier. They said the public wouldn’t believe a “typical American girl” would marry someone like Arnaz, he told Letterman.
“The funny part is we had already been married 10 years by that point,” he laughed.
So, the network said no, even after the writers rewrote the character to be a bandleader like Arnaz. Executives wanted her to stay married to her husband on the radio show, Richard Denning, who’d go on to play the governor on Hawaii Five-O.
Stuck with few options, Arnaz had an idea that would eventually change the history of television forever, but it would start on a theater stage.
‘I Love Lucy’ Gets Road Tested
Desi Arnaz lived under the impression the audience will tell you what’s good and what’s not. “And maybe they’re right,” he recalls telling Lucille Ball. “Maybe nobody will believe you and I would work together, you know.”
But he wanted to test out the idea. He was about to leave for a tour, and he asked Lucy to come along with him and the band. They could perform Vaudeville-type performances before the show or during intermission. They wanted the audience to gauge if they worked together well or not. Of course, they were a massive hit.
“Mr. Paley who was the head of CBS of the time, chairman of the board, he saw us on a stage, and said, ‘well the audience seems to like them together and they have been married for 10 years, so maybe people will believe it,'” he said to gales of laughter.
I Love Lucy ran for 6 years — from October 1951 until May 1957 — and it was an instant hit. Many of the show’s best gags were tried on the road and honed with live performances. And critics still consider it one of the greatest TV shows of all time.