It took her years to get her big break in show business, but “I Love Lucy” star Lucille Ball was always a savvy and ambitious actress. And while she is more famous today than many of her influences, she stood on the shoulders of great comics and comediennes who had gone before her.
In a 1978 interview with “America Alive!” conducted at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Ball listed her greatest comedic influences. She also explained her career-building strategy when she was just starting out.
“Way back, it was liking the type of thing that Ann Sothern did, Carole Lombard did,” Ball said. “Certain men comics. I loved the pantomime and the way Buster Keaton performed. Some names perhaps you don’t even remember that I had watched. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I was influenced, I found out, by certain people.”
‘I Love Lucy’ Star Modeled Her Launch After a B Movie Actress
When she first got to Hollywood, Ball looked to emulate a prominent B movie actress of the time, Ann Sothern. She said she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the natural redhead, who bleached her hair blonde for screwball comedy roles.
“My career was built on everything that Ann Sothern didn’t have time to do,” Ball said. “True. Not funny. Absolutely true, and I was very grateful for it, I’d sort of hang around the casting office and say, ‘Mr. Piazza, is there anything that Ann Sothern can’t do this month?’ You know, and he’d say, ‘Well of course! I mean I’m not running her whole life.’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t mean that. But is she up for something that maybe she turned down?’ And he finally got the idea, and he admired me for it.”
“What I’m saying is that I had a person who was doing the type of thing that I wanted to do,” the “I Love Lucy” star explained. “And I knew if I was in that same stable, in someone’s thoughts, it would get me the opportunity, at least, I’d have had a chance. Didn’t mean I got the job, but I’d have a chance.”
Watch Ball talk about her influences here (at 10:40):
Lucille Ball’s Big Break
Ball had studied acting and worked as a model in New York, but it wasn’t until after she moved to Los Angeles that she managed to break into show business. After moving there in the early 1930s, she finally got a seven-year contract with RKO in 1935, per Variety.
In 1940, Ball met Desi Arnaz on the set of “Too Many Girls.” The couple married that year. However, it would be another decade before “I Love Lucy” first aired in October of 1951.
The show was an instant hit. And after Arnaz pioneered the concept of the rerun, it became even more popular. Still, the television classic we all know and love today would arguably never have happened without the help of Ball’s early influences.