Funny Girl

Lucille Ball at 100: I Love Lucy Star’s Life in Photos

Look back at the hilarious life of America’s favorite redhead, Lucille Ball, who would have been 100 on Saturday!

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Hollywood’s favorite redhead, Lucille Ball, would have turned 100 on Saturday. The nation is celebrating, from a marathon of I Love Lucy episodes to a festival of hundreds of Lucy look-alikes. Take a look back at the comedienne’s remarkable life in photos.

John Kobal Foundation / Getty Images (left); Underwood & Underwood / Corbis

Modeling Years

Lucille Ball, who was born on August 6, 1911, always knew she wanted to be an actress, but her teachers told her she wasn’t pretty enough to break into the industry. Instead, she landed in ads for Chesterfield cigarettes and perfumes (like this advertisement from 1933). Ball said her acting career started when a woman in the film industry recognized her on the street and spontaneously flew her to California for an audition. Over time, Ball gained the Hollywood title of Queen of B’s, with supporting parts in films like Room Service and The Affairs of Annabel. Not too soon after, she met her future husband Desi Arnaz, a Cuban musician.

Bettmann / Corbis

When Lucy Met Desi

Arnaz and Ball eloped together in 1940 and lied about their ages on the marriage certificate. In a time when it was frowned upon for a woman to be older than her husband, the 29-year-old actress lessened their six-year age gap by claiming she was 26. Arnaz also listed 25 even though he was actually 23.  Four years later, Ball filed for divorce, but because the couple lived together during the one-year waiting period, the divorce was considered void. Nevertheless, the two reconciled and helped launch each other’s careers, making them one of the most influential couples in the entertainment industry.

Archive Photos / Getty Images

Hollywood’s Wacky Wife

In 1948, Ball was cast on the radio show My Favorite Husband, which served as the template for I Love Lucy.  My Favorite Husband featured Ball and Richard Denning as a happily married couple in a comfortable home. Jell-O, the official sponsor of the show, inspired Ball’s famous line, “Jell-O, everybody.” After 124 episodes on the radio, Ball was asked to do a televised version of the show for CBS. As appealing as the offer was, she said she would only do it if Arnaz played her on-screen husband and the CBS Network complied.

From left: Loomis Dean, Time Life Pictures / Getty Images; John Springer Collection / Corbis; CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images

Everyone Loves Lucy

I Love Lucy debuted in 1951 and almost immediately becomes a smash hit. “Twenty shows later, we were the number-one show,” Ball said in an interview via Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. I Love Lucy was the most watched show in the United States in four of its six seasons and during that time, Ball and Arnaz had two children.

Bettmann / Corbis

Lucy Goes the Hospital

While Ball was pregnant with her second child Desi Arnaz, Jr. in 1953, CBS wrote the “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” episode to let viewers in on the actress’ real-life state.  At the time, though, CBS found it extremely controversial to have a pregnant woman on the show and therefore, would only allow characters to say she was “expecting.” Nevertheless, a whopping 44 million people tuned in to watch the January 19, 1953 episode, breaking viewership records. In 1954, I Love Lucy won the Emmy for Best Situation Comedy and Vivian Vance earned the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress.

Larry Miller, Bettmann / Corbis

A Knack for Slapstick

In its six seasons, I Love Lucy won five Emmy Awards. Two classic episodes, “Vitameatavegamin” and “Candy Factory,” established Ball’s knack for slapstick comedy.  In the “Vitameatavegamin” episode, she auditions for a commercial for a medicine that she doesn’t realize has a very high level of alcohol content.  When asked to take a sip of the medicine to show viewers how “tasty” the substance is, she winces in pain and the director encourages her to try the scene several more times. Licking her lips, she hesitatingly says, “It’s just like candy.” The “Candy Factory” episode is considered to be one of the most memorable moments in TV history.  As chocolates come down the conveyor belt, Lucy and Ethel (Vivian Vance) must wrap each one individually, which is simple at first.  As the conveyer belt speeds up, however, the two panic and start hiding the treats wherever they’ll fit: in their pockets, chef hats, shirts, and of course, their mouths. 

Bettmann / Corbis

Communism’s Redheaded Herring

Ball registered to vote as a Communist in 1936, and later became the subject of a government investigation. In 1953, she gave the House Un-American Activities Committee her testimony, saying that she registered Communist because her socialist grandfather insisted, but did not intend to vote Communist. The charges were subsequently cleared when officials confirmed she had not made any donations or participated in any Communist rallies. In the midst of the controversy, Arnaz publically supported his wife, telling gossip columnist Hedda Hopper: “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that’s not legitimate.”  

Michael Ochs Archives / Corbis

The Beginning of the End

In 1957, the I Love Lucy show came to an end. Some minor adjustments were made to spin-off the series in sitcom called The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, which was set in a suburban town. The hour-long show lasted for three seasons with the same cast members from I Love Lucy.  While at first the show’s ratings were exceptional, tensions between Ball and Arnaz affected its success both on- and off-camera. While filming one of the final episodes, “The Ricardos Go to Japan,” a close friend of Ball’s, Carole Cook, said her eyes were red while shooting due to a fight with her husband.

Leonard McCombe, Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Breakup Heard 'Round the World'

The final blow came when The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour was cancelled after ratings continued to fall. The final episode turned out to be the solemnest of days. “After Desi and I went into the final clinch and the lights dimmed, there were no laughs, no smiles,” Ball later recalled via Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz “The marriage, after 19 years, had also ended that day.” Ball and Arnaz divorced on May 4, 1960, with Ball citing her husband’s “extreme cruelty,”  according to The Chicago-Tribune, as the cause for their split. “I hate failure and that divorce was a number one failure in my eyes,” Ball said in an interview in 1971. “It was the worst period of my life. Neither Desi nor I have been the same since, physically or mentally.”

CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images

Lucy’s Fresh Start

Ball married stand-up comedian Gary Morton in 1961. Similar to her first marriage, her new husband was younger—in this case, 13 years younger.  In 1962, Ball moved on to the CBS program The Lucy Show, which aired until 1968.  During that time, Ball won two Emmy Awards as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Though the show was tremendously successful, she chose to end it after selling Desliu Productions. Ball went on to create her own production company, Lucille Ball Productions, and star in another TV sitcom, Here’s Lucy.

Courtesy Everett Collection

Diva Behavior

In 1974, Ball starred in the movie musical Mame.  Then in her 60s, she was deathly afraid of looking old and washed up in the movie, so much so that she allegedly clocked her makeup artist for leaving the set to treat an illness. “She hauled off and hit me in the face. Broke my jaw. ‘Who the hell is going to make me up?’ she yelled. She was so afraid she wasn’t going to look good,” makeup artist Hal King claimed in an interview via Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. After the film premiered, critics gave Ball terrible reviews, leading to her retirement from the film industry.

AP Photos

Take A Bow

In her last public appearance, Ball attended the 1989 Academy Awards, where she received a standing ovation while presenting with Bob Hope. Ball dazzled on stage in a sparkling black gown with a slit up her thigh.  It was the first appearance she  had made in several years. A month later, Ball died of a heart attack at the age of 77. After 40 years in show business, she had one of the longest, most prominent Hollywood careers of all time.