Desi Arnaz: Ricky Ricardo and a TV Pioneer Too

desi Arnaz
Desi Arnaz was an entertainment industry pioneer back in the days when television was a brand new medium. Here he is with his wife at the time, the comedienne and actress, Lucille Ball. Wikimedia Commons

The 1950s' most iconic television show may have centered around loving Lucy, but the famous redhead's ex-husband, entertainment industry pioneer Desi Arnaz, deserves a whole lot of love too. Born in Santiago, Cuba in 1917, Arnaz immigrated to the United States just before the Cuban Revolution and went on to change the landscape of TV as we know it.

Arnaz started life in a somewhat privileged position — his great-great grandfather, Don Manuel Arnaz, made an early move to the U.S., buying up tons of land all over Los Angeles, including the area that would become posh Beverly Hills. Arnaz's dad was the mayor of Santiago, his mom was the daughter of one of the Bacardi Rum Company founders, and his grandpa had accompanied Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders at the Battle of San Juan Hill — all in all, not a bad family tree to sprout from.


From Cuba to Miami

But in 1934, an uprising in Cuba landed Arnaz's dad in jail, and once he was released, the family fled to Miami, Florida, rebuilding a much humbler life in the States. Two years later, Arnaz, then a musically inclined high schooler, started playing guitar and singing in a small rhumba band. That's when famous bandleader Xavier Cugat discovered him, swooped him into his band, and Arnaz found enough success to branch out on his own. Ever heard of a conga line? Arnaz is credited with introducing that dance party staple to Miami crowds.

Gaining more and more popularity, Arnaz and his band made the move to New York, starred on Broadway in a musical called "Too Many Girls," and was then asked to appear in the film adaptation of the play. On the set of that 1939 movie he met Lucille Ball. The two fell in love and six months later they eloped. Though they briefly separated in 1944, the pair reconciled and began dreaming up opportunities to collaborate again on-screen.


"I Love Lucy"

The magic moment came in 1950 when Arnaz and Ball pitched CBS on a sitcom they'd developed called "I Love Lucy." Network executives initially weren't sold on the Cuban-born actor's accent, so the married duo used their own money to produce a pilot and convinced the big bosses that Arnaz was more than fit to play the fictional Ricky Ricardo and that the show would be a hit.

Not only was it a hit — it was the hit. "I Love Lucy" was America's most popular TV show for four of its six prime-time seasons between 1951 and 1957, and viewers fell in love with the couple's non-traditional partnership that is now credited as a groundbreaking example of multi-ethnic relationships, progressive Latino-American masculinity and gender dynamics.


But Arnaz wasn't just the on-screen straight man to Ball's uproariously-funny lead character. He was also heavily involved in every aspect of production, from coordinating taping in front of a live audience (a first for televised sitcoms) to figuring out how to simultaneously operate three cameras in real time. "Bless Desi Arnaz for creating [the] three camera," filmmaker Penny Marshall once said, according to PBS. "You could find out what's funny or not with an audience. They're faster than anything."

Desilu Productions

And if you love a good rerun marathon, you have Arnaz to thank — he and Ball formed the first-ever independent television production company, Desilu, in preparation for the show, and convinced CBS to give them full ownership of the episodes. When Arnaz later sold them back to CBS, he reportedly made millions, and the show continues to live on thanks to his business savvy.

Although Arnaz and Ball eventually divorced in 1960, they remained close friends for the remainder of their lives. They had two children together, and in fact, according to the book "Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz," the multi-talented mogul said these last words to his ex-wife who was about to embark on a new television project: "I love you too, honey. Good luck with your show." Arnaz passed away from cancer in 1986 at the age of 69, but his legend endures thanks to the immeasurable impact he had on the entertainment industry, his loved ones and the communities that continue to draw inspiration from his immense contributions.