Disturbing Behind-The-Scenes Details About 'I Love Lucy'

Running for six seasons from 1951 to 1957, the Television Academy Hall of Fame sitcom "I Love Lucy" established itself as one of the best television shows of all time. The audience couldn't get enough of the shenanigans of Lucy Ricardo, her husband, Ricky, and their wacky neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz, as each episode contained enough guffaws to work the stomach and develop a six-pack. For four of its six seasons, the CBS program climbed to the top of the charts as the most-watched show in America, while its reruns continue to find a new generation of fans decades later. Yet, while it was all laughs and good times in front of the camera, it was an altogether different story behind the scenes.

For example, the real reason Desi Arnaz was cast in "I Love Lucy" was because his wife and the show's star Lucille Ball used it as a way to save their withering marriage. Elsewhere, Vivian Vance experienced a nervous breakdown due to the stress of the show. It wasn't all roses and sunshine for the crew members, either, as director William Asher opened up about his tumultuous first day on set.

With that said, let's hop into Doc Brown's DeLorean and take a trip back in time to find out all the shocking behind-the-scenes details about America's favorite sitcom, "I Love Lucy."

A 'ghost' told Lucille Ball to do I Love Lucy

"I Love Lucy" changed the way that women were portrayed on television. Lucy Ricardo wasn't a meek-and-mild housewife sitting around and waiting for her husband, Ricky, to come home, as she showcased a colorful personality and held her own grand ambitions. Proposing this premise to a female actor in the 1950s would certainly be a major selling point, but it isn't the real reason Lucille Ball decided to do "I Love Lucy."

At the time, Ball had a budding film career and a successful radio show called "My Favorite Husband" that secured her $136,500 per year, per Warren G. Harris' "Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television's Most Famous Couple." Of course, "My Favorite Husband" became the main source of inspiration for "I Love Lucy," but Ball remained apprehensive about the sitcom since she had guaranteed film work, while her husband, Desi Arnaz, also had a musical career.

However, her decision to roll the dice was made after a dream she had about a close friend who died in 1942. "Then I dreamed about Carole Lombard," Ball once said (via "Lucy & Desi"). "She was wearing a very smart suit — Carole always dressed very beautifully — and she said, 'Take a chance, honey. Give it a whirl!' After that, I knew for certain that we were doing the right thing." Ball added that Lombard would often appear in her dreams to provide advice.

Lucille Ball wanted Desi Arnaz on the show to save their marriage

It's difficult to imagine anyone else but Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on "I Love Lucy." Their real-life chemistry as a married couple shone on screen, convincing the audience that these two characters genuinely cared about each other. However, Lucille Ball's relationship with Desi Arnaz had been on shaky ground before "I Love Lucy," as there had been rumors of infidelity on Arnaz's part. As director William Asher explained to People, the couple had separated briefly for a period before the show started. Their marriage struggled as Ball continued to work as an actor while Arnaz was on the road with his band. They weren't together much, leading to mounting issues between them.

Ball's solution to their problems was to get Arnaz a part as her husband on the sitcom, but not everyone was convinced. "At the time the consensus was, 'What the hell do we want with a Latin bandleader who can't speak English?'" "I Love Lucy" writer Bob Weiskopf added. "But she wanted him because she knew that if he went on the road with the band, he'd be catting around all the time. She wanted him at home, where she felt the marriage would have a better chance of lasting, which of course it did."

The couple eventually divorced in 1960. However, judging by Lucille Ball's heartbreaking final words to Desi Arnaz before his death, they never stopped loving each other.

CBS didn't want William Frawley

Before Larry David confirmed himself as a pretty, pretty good curmudgeon on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," William Frawley's Fred Mertz laid out the cantankerous blueprint for Mr. David. Frawley was no stranger to the world of showbiz, having starred in a plethora of films before being cast in "I Love Lucy." However, Frawley's casting proved to be controversial at the time. In fact, Desi Arnaz needed to bat for him, as CBS was concerned about Frawley's reputation for being a heavy drinker.

As Arnaz explained in his autobiography "A Book," Frawley called him to find out if he could be considered for the role of Fred. Familiar with his talents and believing him to be the right fit for the part, Arnaz took the suggestion to CBS, but the executives pushed back on the idea. However, Arnaz used his position as an executive producer on the show to hire Frawley anyway. Nonetheless, he still had a conversation with the actor where he explained how their working relationship would need to work.

"The first time you are not able to do your job, I'll try to work around you for that day," Arnaz told Frawley. "The second time, I'll try to manage again. But if you do it three times, you are through, and I mean through, not only on our show, but you'll never work in this town again as long as you live. Is that fair enough?" Frawley agreed, and the rest is history.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz didn't think the sitcom would be a hit

Lucille Ball put her eggs in one basket as she hoped "I Love Lucy" would save her rocky marriage to Desi Arnaz. Not only had they experienced turmoil because of Arnaz's purported affairs and them spending too much time apart because of their careers, but they also wanted to start a family together. As fortune would have it, Ball gave birth to their daughter, Lucie Arnaz, a few weeks before she began work on "I Love Lucy." According to Lucie, her parents thought they would do the program for a short while, then get to enjoy a happy and cozy family life — never anticipating the seismic and life-changing success that would follow.

"Having me six weeks before she went to work on 'I Love Lucy,' they thought, 'We'll do this for a year and we'll have home movies for our kids.' And it became the biggest thing ever," Lucie told Desert Sun. "So, it was one of those things, 'Be careful what you wish for.' It was almost impossible to be with the family you said you wanted to have all your life."

Lucie added how her parents' burgeoning production company, Desilu, also complicated matters in terms of them finding time to be a family. At a point, Arnaz suggested they keep their enterprise smaller and spend more time at home, but Ball decided to go all in and grow the operation instead.

Lucille Ball nearly drowned on set

Fans might have had a laugh at the Season 5 episode of "I Love Lucy" titled "Lucy's Italian Movie," but Lucille Ball wasn't laughing during the filming of an infamous grape-stomping scene. As Ball recounted on "The Dick Cavett Show," the scene called for a play fight between her character Lucy Ricardo and Italian actor Teresa Tirelli in a vat of grapes. Tirelli, though, didn't speak English, receiving basic instructions from the person who brought her to the shoot.

Ball explained how she slipped at a point and crashed into her co-star. "And she took offense," Ball said. "So, she hauled off and let me have it." Of course, the scene called for a fight between them, but Ball's limbs were supposed to come up from the vat to add to the comedic effect. Tirelli didn't let up, though, and Ball started to struggle as she drowned in the grapes.

"She kept me down by the throat," Ball said. "I had grapes up my nose, in my ears, and she was choking me. And I'm really beating her to get her off." Ball fought Tirelli off and called out for the director, who thought they were only hamming it up for the sake of comedy. In the end, the scene needed to be shot again. "To drown in a vat of grapes was not the way I had planned to go," Ball added.

Lucille Ball initially wanted Vivian Vance fired

Lucille Ball's friendship with Vivian Vance has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. The pair not only played best pals Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz on "I Love Lucy," but they were also the best of friends when the cameras stopped rolling and the live audience left the building. In fact, when Ball filed for divorce from Desi Arnaz, Vance was part of the select few people who knew about it, as "Sidekicked" playwright Kim Powers' described to Closer Weekly.

While they built a lifelong and cherished friendship, thanks to their paths crossing on "I Love Lucy," Ball wasn't a fan of Vance's casting initially. Ball didn't have a say in the hiring of Vance as Ethel, since it was director Marc Daniels, producer Jess Oppenheimer, and Arnaz who made the decision after scouting her on stage. When Ball found out about Vance's casting, she wasn't all too pleased as she thought the actor playing Ethel would be much different in appearance than Vance.

Co-author of "The Other Side of Ethel Mertz: The Life Story of Vivian Vance," Frank Castelluccio, suggested that Ball went as far as trying to get Vance booted from the show altogether. "Lucy fought to get her off the show," Castelluccio quotes of the show's writers, Bob Weiskopf and Bob Schiller. "She was from the old school that said you never have prettier people on the set." Fortunately, Ball and Vance learned to overcome the initial animosity and soon became bosom buddies until the end.

Vivian Vance continued to experience mental health issues during the show

In May 1955, Vivian Vance opened up to McCall's about her mental health issues and the effects they had on her life. She explained the debilitating nature of what she felt and referred to a specific incident as a "nervous breakdown," while discussing the positives that "I Love Lucy" had brought to her life and career.

According to Albuquerque Museum's curator for history (via the Weekly Alibi), Deborah Slaney, Vance continued to experience mental health issues because of the pressure to perform and her own desire to be seen as a star. Reportedly, Vance wanted to be recognized as more than just Ethel Mertz from "I Love Lucy" and strived to be seen as a leading lady.

"She lived with the knowledge that continual performing could send her over the edge," Slaney said. "She freely admitted in the '50s that she spent at least a couple of years in therapy. That's why she felt it was so important to volunteer to help mental health organizations." Vance never stopped performing until she received her cancer diagnosis in 1973. From there, she decided to slow down and only choose a few select jobs as she received treatment.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Fred Mertz was inspired by William Frawley's real-life personality

There was no disputing William Frawley's talent, and he left his undeniable mark as Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy." However, it appears as if Fred's cynical and unpleasant mannerisms were closer to reality than most viewers may have imagined. As author Geoffrey Mark explained, "I Love Lucy" writers took a lot of inspiration from the real-life Frawley for the character — for better or worse.

"He was not an easy man to work with," Mark said to Closer Weekly. "He was very set in his ways, he was Irish Catholic, I believe. He did not have a very strong taste for Jews; he was a little antisemitic. Which is not a good thing if your boss, in this case Jess Oppenheimer, was Jewish. He didn't like people who weren't white, which is not a good thing when you're working for Desi Arnaz."

Another person who Frawley didn't like was his on-screen wife, Vivian Vance. J.K. Simmons, who played Frawley in the 2021 biopic "Being the Ricardos," told Vanity Fair that, through his research, he discovered the animosity between Frawley and Vance was real and present from the very first table read. After Vance made a comment about playing the wife of an "old coot," their relationship fractured and never recovered, though they remained professional while working together.

Lucille Ball physically assaulted Desi Arnaz behind the scenes

An undisputed fact about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's relationship is that there were problems between them, hence their eventual split. While starring together in "I Love Lucy" was an attempt at keeping them closer, it appears like it wasn't without incident either. According to Stefan Kanfer's "Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball," there were heated incidents between the pair, which sometimes resulted in physical violence.

Maury Thompson, who worked behind the scenes on the show and collaborated with the couple thereafter, reported that Ball hurt Arnaz on occasion. "She loves to hurt a man," Thompson said. "She's kicked Desi in the nuts several times. Just bowled him over. She laughed about it. If he's stooped over, she'll kick him in the butt, and she'll aim low and she'll hit him right in the balls." There were also allegations that Ball hit Arnaz over the head with a hammer and knocked him out at one point.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

Director William Asher had a heated first day on I Love Lucy

In the sitcom genre, filmmaker William Asher is renowned as royalty, having played a vital role in bringing iconic series such as "Our Miss Brooks" and "Bewitched" to life. He also played an important role in the success of "I Love Lucy," as he joined the show in the second season after the departure of Marc Daniels and oversaw over 100 episodes.

However, his first day on set proved to be eventful for all the wrong reasons. According to the Directors Guild of America magazine, Asher stepped away from the rehearsal to deal with another matter. When he returned, he saw Lucille Ball issuing instructions to the crew, and he didn't like it. "I said, 'Lucy, there's only one director. I'm it. If you would like to direct, then don't pay me and send me home,'" he said. "When I said that, she began to cry and ran off the stage. Everybody disappeared."

At that point, Asher feared he might have tanked the gig. It didn't help that Ball's husband, Desi Arnaz, had a go at him too. Asher, though, explained the situation to Arnaz and what had happened. Arnaz saw his point and encouraged him to speak to Ball. Asher approached Ball and apologized for making her cry. According to Asher, they went back to work and never had a problem thereafter.

To learn more about this iconic sitcom, read the untold truth of "I Love Lucy."