Lucille Desiree Ball was born on August 6, 1911, in a small town near Jamestown, New York. At 15, she enrolled in a drama school in New York City. However, after twelve months (attending with classmate Bette Davis) the acting coach told Lucy that she wasn't talented and should go into something else. Dejected, she became a soda fountain clerk at a drug store, and also sold hotdogs at an amusement park. Lucy repeatedly auditioned unsuccessfully for Broadway chorus lines before turning to modeling. Using the name Diane Belmont, she became a model in fashion designer Hattie Carnegie’s studio and soon won national exposure as the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl in 1933.
From the early 1930s through the late 1940s, Ball appeared in over 60 films. She was under contract to the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) studio for seven years, playing leading roles in a number of low-budget movies. Some of her more notable films included Stage Door (1937), with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers; The Affairs of Annabel (1938); Five Came Back (1939); Dance, Girl, Dance (1940); The Big Street (1942); The Dark Corner (1946); and Sorrowful Jones (1949), co-starring Bob Hope. From 1947 to 1951, Ball played the wacky wife of a straight-laced banker on the popular CBS radio program, My Favorite Husband, which I Love Lucy was later based on.
When CBS approached her about taking the show to television, Lucy said that she would only participate if her real-life husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, played her TV husband (Ball and Arnaz had eloped in 1940, after meeting on the set of Too Many Girls). CBS executives were initially skeptical about public acceptance of such a couple, but Arnaz and Ball won them over after they went on a successful nationwide tour with their vaudeville act. When I Love Lucy premiered on October 15, 1951, it immediately became one of the most popular shows on television. The show won more than 200 awards, including five Emmys. Ball won audiences over with her tempestuous, disaster-prone Lucy. Perfecting her own brand of physical comedy, she represented a new kind of female character, goofy yet sexy, that TV had never seen the likes of before.
The show had a dramatic impact, changing the way TV comedies were made. Thirty minute sitcoms increasingly replaced the once-dominant hour-long comedy variety shows.
By 1957 after 179 episodes, both Ball and Arnaz were exhausted by the show’s hectic taping schedule, and their marriage was in trouble. For the next three years, they made a series of hour-long specials, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, and Arnaz continued to work tirelessly on Desilu, which grew into a powerful corporation and spawned a number of hit TV series, including Star Trek and Mission Impossible. In 1960 the couple ended their 20-year marriage. The volatile Arnaz declined into alcoholism, and in 1962, Ball bought his half of Desilu, becoming sole owner of what was then the world’s largest production facility. In 1962, Ball brought the character of Lucy back, on The Lucy Show, which ran until 1968, and Here’s Lucy, from 1968 to 1974. Both shows featured her children, Lucie and Desi Jr., as well as Vance and a new male co-star, Gale Gordon. In addition to her acting career, Lucy proved to be a successful businesswoman.
Lucy was nominated for 13 Emmys and won four. In 1984, she was given the Kennedy Center Honors, the country's highest honor for acting. She also won the hearts of millions of viewers. On April 26, 1989, a week after undergoing open-heart surgery, Ball died at the age of 77. At the time of her death, I Love Lucy remained in syndication in more than 80 countries.