Biography of Desi Arnaz

TV Comedy Pioneer and Cuban Bandleader

Desi Arnaz
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives

Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha, III (March 2, 1917 - December 2, 1986), also known as Desi Arnaz, was a Cuban-American bandleader and television star. With his wife Lucille Ball, he helped lay the foundation for the format and production of television sitcoms over many decades. Their show "I Love Lucy" is one of the most celebrated of all time.

Early Years and Emigration

Desi Arnaz was born to a wealthy family in Santiago de Cuba, the second-largest city in Cuba. His father served as mayor and in the Cuban House of Representatives. Following the 1933 Cuban Revolution led by Fulgencio Batista, the new government jailed Desi Arnaz's father, Alberto, for six months and confiscated the family's property. When the government released Alberto, the family fled to Miami, Florida.

After working a variety of odd jobs, Arnaz turned to music to support his family. He worked for a short time in Xavier Cugat's band in New York City, and then he formed a popular orchestra. In 1939, Desi Arnaz appeared on Broadway in the musical "Too Many Girls." When he was called to Hollywood to appear in a film version of the show, Desi met his co-star Lucille Ball. They quickly began a relationship and had eloped and wed by November 1940.

Television Star

Desi Arnaz was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II, but, due to a knee injury, he served by helping direct U.S.O. shows at a base in California instead of in active combat. After his discharge at the end of the war, Arnaz returned to music, and he worked with comedian Bob Hope as his orchestra leader in 1946 and 1947.

In 1949, with his wife Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz began work on the television situation comedy "I Love Lucy." CBS initially wanted to adapt Lucille Ball's radio program "My Favorite Husband" for television broadcast with her co-star Richard Denning. However, Ball refused to do a show without her husband as her co-star. Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball formed Desilu Studios to produce the show and help sell it to CBS executives.

Leading up to the premiere of  "I Love Lucy,", Lucille Ball co-starred in two successful Bob Hope movies, "Sorrowful Jones" in 1949 and "Fancy Pants" in 1950. They helped enhance her national reputation as a top comedian. With the wind of her radio and film success and Desi's music popularity, at their backs, the new show was an eagerly anticipated event.

"I Love Lucy" debuted on October 15, 1951. It ran for six seasons through May 6, 1957. Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball starred as a struggling Cuban-American bandleader named Ricky Ricardo and his wife, Lucy. The show co-starred William Frawley and Vivian Vance as Fred and Ethel Mertz, landlords and best friends of the Ricardos. "I Love Lucy" was the most-watched show in the country in four of its six seasons. It was the only show to finish its run at the top of the ratings until "The Andy Griffith Show" matched the feat in 1968. Through syndication, "I Love Lucy" is still watched by an estimated 40 million viewers a year.

After the show came to an end, Desi Arnaz continued production work at the Desilu Studios. He personally produced The "Ann Sothern Show" and the Western show "The Texan" starring Rory Calhoun. After selling his share of Desilu, Arnaz formed Desi Arnaz Productions. Through his company, he helped create the series "The Mothers-in-Law" which aired in 1967 and 1968. The show included the return of Desi Arnaz in a television acting role appearing as a guest on four episodes. He continued to appear on television sporadically in his later years, including serving as guest host for "Saturday Night Live" in 1976 along with his son Desi Arnaz, Jr.

Legacy of Television Innovations

"I Love Lucy" was one of the most influential TV shows of all time. It was the first to be shot with multiple cameras running simultaneously and a studio audience. The use of a live audience created much more realistic sounds of laughter than the standard laugh track. Desi Arnaz worked closely with his cameraman Karl Freund to create a set that accommodated the innovations. Later, filming situation comedies in front of a studio audience became the norm in Hollywood.

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball also insisted that "I Love Lucy" be shot with 35mm film so they could distribute a high-quality copy to local television stations across the country. The production of film copies of the show also led to the later syndication of "I Love Lucy" in reruns. It created the model for syndicated shows to come. The reruns have helped increase the legendary status of "I Love Lucy."

Arnaz and Ball broke down many cultural norms on "I Love Lucy." When she became pregnant in real life, CBS network executives insisted that they could not show a pregnant woman on national television. After consulting with religious leaders, Desi Arnaz demanded that storylines in the show incorporate the pregnancy and CBS relented. The episodes surrounding the pregnancy and birth of Desi Arnaz, Jr. were among the most popular in the show's history.

Both Desi and Lucy were concerned that "I Love Lucy" include only humor that was in "good taste." Consequently, they refused to use ethnic jokes on the show or include disrespectful references to physical disabilities or mental illness. The only exception to the rules was making fun of Ricky Ricardo's Cuban accent. When using it in humor, the show focused on his wife, Lucy, mimicking his pronunciation.

Personal Life

The 20-year marriage between Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball was, by all accounts, a turbulent one. Alcohol problems and accusations of unfaithfulness plagued the relationship. The couple had two children, Lucie Arnaz, born in 1951, and Desi Arnaz, Jr., born in 1953. On May 4, 1960, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball divorced. They remained friends and professional confidants through Arnaz's death. He encouraged her return to a weekly TV series in 1962. Desi Arnaz married for a second time in 1963 to Edith Hirsch. Following the marriage, he reduced his professional activity significantly. Edith passed away in 1985. Arnaz was a smoker for most of his life, and he received a lung cancer diagnosis in 1986. He died in December 1986 and reportedly spoke with Lucille Ball on the telephone just two days before his death. It would have been the date of their 46th wedding anniversary.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Arnaz, Desi. A Book. William Morrow, 1976.
  • Sanders, Coyne Steven, and Thomas W. Gilbert. Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Morrow, 1993.