Everyone loves stories of overcoming adversity and ultimate triumph. I happened to run across the story of Desi Arnaz. He is best known for his role as Ricky Ricardo in the cult classic American TV sitcom I Love Lucy. Co-starring alongside his then-wife Lucille Ball. His heartfelt comments got me thinking of how blessed we are to live in America—which, I feel, we often take for granted.
Desi Arnaz, a Cuban-born American actor, musician, and TV producer, is most renowned for his portrayal of Ricky Ricardo in the iconic American TV sitcom “I Love Lucy.” Teaming up with his then-wife Lucille Ball, the duo not only acted in the show but also pioneered the concept of syndicated reruns, contributing significantly to its extraordinary success. The series aired from 1951 to 1957 across six seasons, encompassing an unprecedented 180 half-hour episodes.
Arnaz’s journey to becoming a pivotal figure in one of the USA’s most-watched shows was far from an unblemished path, despite the initial appearance of glamour. Born into an influential Cuban family in 1917 in Santiago, Arnaz hailed from a lineage with notable connections, including his father Desiderio Arnaz II, who served as the mayor of Santiago, and his mother Dolores de Acha, a descendant of one of Bacardi Rum Company’s founders. His grandfather, Don Desiderio, even participated as a physician in the Battle of San Juan Hill alongside Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in 1898.
“We came to this country and we didnt have a cent in our pockets. From cleaning canary cages to this night in New York is a long ways. I dont think there’s any other country in the world that can give you this opportunity. I want to say thank you, thank you America, thank you.”
~ Desi Arnaz
Despite growing up amidst opulence, circumstances shifted drastically for Arnaz at the age of 19. The family was upended when Fulgencio Batista led the Cuban army against the Machado regime, resulting in the arrest of Arnaz’s father and the loss of their home. Upon his father’s release, the family relocated to Miami, seeking a simpler life. There, his father started a business importing tiles for construction.
“I learned a lot in those first years in Miami, while struggling just for survival, by observing my father’s fortitude.” ~ Desi Arnas
Quickly adapting to life in Miami, Arnaz’s first brush with show business came when he joined a small rhumba band, the Siboney Septet, at the Roney Plaza Hotel, singing and playing the guitar. His talent caught the ear of renowned musician Xaviar Cugat, who invited him to join his band. After a year with Cugat, Arnaz branched out to form his own band in 1937, introducing the conga line to Miami, a dance synonymous with Cuban carnivals. His band’s success led him to New York, where he popularized the dance further.
“The thing I remember about New York was how little I felt. I arrived with one small bag and $15.” ~ Desi Arnaz
Arnaz’s musical prowess opened doors, landing him a role on Broadway in “Too Many Girls” (1939) and subsequently in the RKO Pictures movie adaptation the following year. During this period, his romance with Lucille Ball began to bloom, and the couple eloped in November 1940. Arnaz’s acting career continued with appearances in movies like “Bataan” (1943) until he received his draft notice during World War II. An injury led to limited service in the United States Army, where he was assigned to direct United Service Organization (USO) programs at a military hospital.
Following his discharge, Arnaz formed another band, while Ball pursued her own television and radio performances. In 1951, their personal lives intertwined with art as they co-starred in the premiere of “I Love Lucy.” Arnaz played a fictionalized version of himself, a Cuban orchestra leader named Enrique “Ricky” Ricardo, while Ball portrayed Lucy, his wife.
The genesis of “I Love Lucy” stemmed from television executives’ desire to adapt Ball’s popular radio show “My Favorite Husband” for TV. Arnaz’s participation as her on-air husband was initially met with skepticism, given concerns about his Cuban accent and Latin style. However, their live vaudeville act developed during a tour with Pepito Pérez and Ball’s radio writers laid the groundwork for the show. Desilu Productions, the company they formed, granted them creative control.
Key to the show’s success was its live audience format, which Arnaz and co-creator Jess Oppenheimer believed would capture the energetic comedy that Ball was renowned for on the radio.
The introduction of a film studio accommodating an audience was groundbreaking at the time, fostering genuine laughter and enabling multi-camera shoots. The decision to re-broadcast popular episodes during Ball’s pregnancy inadvertently birthed the concept of reruns, reshaping TV syndication.
“I Love Lucy” stood out for its humor that avoided ethnic stereotypes and physical disabilities, except when Ball playfully mimicked Arnaz’s accent. The show eventually transitioned to “The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show,” extending to 60-minute episodes featuring guest stars.
”Good things do not come easy. The road is lined with pitfalls.”
~ Desi Arnas
While their marriage experienced turmoil behind the scenes, the show remained a triumph. After the series concluded, Ball bought out Arnaz’s shares of Desilu Productions.
Their divorce in 1960 marked the end of an era. Arnaz continued producing TV shows, co-hosting “The Mike Douglas Show,” and even guest-hosting “Saturday Night Live” with his son Desi Arnaz Jr.
Arnaz spent his later years in semi-retirement in California, focusing on horse breeding and teaching. He passed away in 1986 due to lung cancer, leaving a legacy etched in Hollywood Walk of Fame stars and the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center. His influence on television and entertainment endures, a testament to the transformative power of “I Love Lucy” and the indelible mark he left on the industry.
After his death, Arnaz was cremated and his ashes were scattered. His funeral was held at Solana Beach, California, on December 4, 1986, according to the Associated Press. The publication reported that 100 people attended the private service, including Ball, who was seen weeping.