When I Love Lucy first hit the airwaves in 1951, its multicultural plot and unconventional filming techniques broke the television mold both on-screen and behind the scenes. But those daring moves paid off, turning the CBS sitcom, starring Lucille Ball and her real-life husband Desi Arnaz, into one of the most successful shows of a generation — and one that transformed the standards of the television industry forever.
With moments made memorable by Ball’s knack for physical comedy, evident in scenes where she's struggling with a candy factory conveyor belt or stomping grapes in a giant barrel, the show went on to win five Emmys, mega-ratings, and the hearts of fans across the country. The show was also the subject of the 2021 Oscar-nominated movie Being the Ricardos, which gave a glimpse into the not-so-comical real lives of Ball (played by Nicole Kidman) and Arnaz (played by Javier Bardem).
Here are 13 surprising facts that make the show even more lovable.
The Show Was a Breakthrough for Interracial Marriage
Ball married Cuban American bandleader and actor Arnaz in 1940, and together they came up with the concept for I Love Lucy. But the idea of them playing a couple on TV was immediately met with resistance from her talent agency. “The people there said the public wouldn’t believe I was married to Desi,” she told Saturday Evening Post. “He talked with a Cuban accent, and, after all, what typical American girl is married to a Latin? American girls marry them all the time, of course, but not on TV.”
The Pilot of the Show Was Lost for Four Decades
I Love Lucy’s pilot episode, shot March 2, 1950, couldn’t be found for about 40 years. But one of Arnaz’s collaborators Pepito Perez later found a 35-millimeter version of it in his house nearly 40 years later. Though some of it was damaged, most of the footage aired as part of a 1990 CBS special.
The Couple Insisted on Filming in Los Angeles
At the time, New York City was the place to be for live television productions, because it had the proper facilities. But Ball and Arnaz were insistent on filming in Los Angeles, both for personal reasons and because they wanted to take advantage of using the movie industry’s facilities for heightened quality. As part of the deal, they had to take the additional production costs upon themselves, so their production company, Desilu, was given full ownership of the series, which eventually made the couple the TV industry’s first millionaires.
The Original Opening Sequence Was Animated by Hanna-Barbera
An agent called up famed Tom and Jerry animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera to create both the opening credits and interstitials for the show in 1951. They originally drew up stick-figure versions of Ball and Arnaz for the opening sequence, but stick figures were removed in later airings of the show.
Ball Was Only the Second Woman To Appear Pregnant on Network TV
When Ball became pregnant in real life, she and Arnaz considered taking a hiatus from the show — but then thought it would be an opportunity to break the mold again. “We think the American people will buy Lucy’s having a baby if it’s done with taste,” Arnaz said. “Pregnant women are not kept off the streets, so why should she be kept off television? There’s nothing disgraceful about a wife becoming a mother.” She ended up being the one of the first women to appear pregnant on a major television network and received more than 30,000 supportive letters from fans, despite the fact that the cast wasn’t allowed to say the word “pregnant” on-screen.
The Show Was Perfectly Scripted
So much of the appeal of the show comes from the natural dialogue that often seemed ad-libbed, especially in scenes between Ball and Vivian Vance, who played Ethel Mertz. Yet none of the words ever went off-script. “We knew what we were going to say and because we were thinking, we were listening to each other, and then reacting and then acting, it came out like may we’d made it up,” Ball said. “We never ad-libbed on the set when we were putting it together. It was there.”
The Sitcom Pioneered the Three-Camera Television Format
To capture Ball’s comedic performances from every angle, the show started the three-camera format, which first required developing a new lighting system to keep the look consistent from each camera. Cinematographer Karl Freund was brought in to create the technique, which is now widely used in the television industry.
Baseball Took Precedent Over the Show for William Frawley
William Frawley, who played landlord Fred Mertz, was such a dedicated Yankees fan that his contract stipulated he wouldn’t work on the show whenever his beloved New York team was in the World Series. As the Yankees went on a winning streak in the '50s, making it to the series in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, and 1957, the clause was enacted a couple of times, with Fred not appearing in two episodes.
Cher’s Mom Appeared on an Episode in a Potato Sack
Before Cher became a household name, her mother, Georgia Holt, was a model who made a few TV cameos, including one memorable — but brief — appearance in a 1956 episode where the crew goes to Paris and is baffled by the avant-garde fashion. At the end, Holt is seen walking by as a model in an outfit inspired by the potato sack.
Ball’s Mom Was at Every Single Taping
Holt wasn’t the only famous mom seen on set. Ball’s mother, DeDe Ball, went to every single taping of her daughter’s sitcom. In fact, her laughter can often be heard coming from the live audience — and she can even be heard saying, “Uh oh!” at times.
It Was the Top-Rated Show for Four Seasons
After its October 1951 debut, I Love Lucy spent four of its six seasons as the top-rated television show, never dipping below third place. For comparison, 29 million viewers watched President Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential inauguration in January 1953, but the following day, 44 million watched the episode where Ball’s character gave birth.
Ball Thought She Was Going to Die in the Grape-Stomping Scene
In a 1974 Dick Cavett Show interview, Ball revealed that she truly thought she was going to be killed during the grape-crushing scene in the famous 1956 episode “Lucy’s Italian Movie.” The staged fight with fellow actress Teresa Tirelli was supposed to be simulated but may have gone too far. “I slipped and when I slipped, I hit her, accidentally — and she took offense. So, she hauled off and let me have it…it took all the wind out of me,” Ball said. “She kept me down by the throat. And she was choking me, and I am really beating her to get her off. I was drowning in these grapes. She was killing me.”
Eventually, Ball was able to get out from under Tirelli and signal to the director. “She spent so much time beating the hell out of me in the vat, we had to cut half of it,” Ball said. “To drown in a vat of grapes was not the way I had planned to go.”
The Show Was Almost Called I Love Lopez
At one point, the characters were going to be Lucy and Larry Lopez and the show would have been known as I Love Lopez.