Arnaz and Lucille Ball cofounded and ran the television production company Desilu Productions, originally to market I Love Lucy to television networks. After I Love Lucy ended, Arnaz went on to produce several other television series, at first with Desilu Productions, and later independently; examples of which included: The Ann Sothern Show and The Untouchables. He was also renowned for leading his Latin music band, the Desi Arnaz Orchestra.
Arnaz was born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha, III, in Santiago de Cuba to Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Alberni II (March 8, 1894—May 31, 1973) and his wife Dolores de Acha (April 2, 1896—October 24, 1988). His father was Santiago's youngest mayor and also served in the Cuban House of Representatives. His maternal grandfather was Alberto de Acha, an executive at Bacardi Rum.
According to Arnaz, in his autobiography A Book (1976), the family owned three ranches, a palatial home, and a vacation mansion on a private island in Santiago Bay, Cuba. Following the 1933 Cuban Revolution, led by Fulgencio Batista, which overthrew President Gerardo Machado, Alberto Arnaz was jailed and all of his property was confiscated. He was released after six months when his brother-in-law Alberto de Acha intervened on his behalf. The family then fled to Miami, where Desi attended St. Patrick Catholic High School. In the summer of 1934, he attended Saint Leo Prep (near Tampa) to help improve his English.
When he moved to the United States, Desi Arnaz turned to show business to support himself. In 1939, he starred on Broadway in the musical Too Many Girls. He went to Hollywood the next year to appear in the show's movie version at RKO, which starred Lucille Ball. Arnaz and Ball eloped on November 30, 1940. Arnaz also played guitar for Xavier Cugat.
Arnaz appeared in several movies in the 1940s such as Bataan (1943). He received his draft notice, but before reporting, he injured his knee. He completed his recruit training, but was classified for limited service in the United States Army during World War II. He was assigned to direct United Service Organization (U.S.O.) programs at a military hospital in the San Fernando Valley. Discovering the first thing the wounded soldiers requested was a glass of cold milk, he arranged for movie starlets to meet them and pour the milk for them. Following his discharge from the Army, he formed another orchestra, which was successful in live appearances and recordings. He sang for troops in Birmingham Hospital with John Macchia and hired his childhood friend Marco Rizo to play piano and arrange for the orchestra. When he became successful in television, he kept the orchestra on his payroll, and Rizo arranged and orchestrated the music for I Love Lucy.
On October 15, 1951, Arnaz co-starred in the premiere of I Love Lucy, in which he played a fictionalized version of himself, Cuban orchestra leader Enrique "Ricky" Ricardo. His co-star was his real-life wife, Lucille Ball, who played Ricky's wife, Lucy. Television executives had been pursuing Ball to adapt her very popular radio series My Favorite Husband for television. Ball insisted on Arnaz playing her on-air spouse so the two would be able to spend more time together. CBS wanted Ball's "Husband" co-star Richard Denning.
The original premise was for the couple to portray Lucy and Larry Lopez, a successful show business couple whose glamorous careers interfered with their efforts to maintain a normal marriage. Market research indicated, however, that this scenario would not be popular, so Jess Oppenheimer changed it to make Ricky Ricardo a struggling young orchestra leader and Lucy an ordinary housewife who had show business fantasies but no talent. The character name "Larry Lopez" was dropped because of a real-life bandleader named Vincent Lopez, and was replaced with "Ricky Ricardo". Ricky often appeared at, and later owned, the Tropicana Club, which under his ownership he renamed Club Babalu.
Initially, the idea of having Ball and the distinctly Latino Arnaz portray a married couple encountered resistance as they were told that Desi's Cuban accent and Latin style would not be agreeable to American viewers. The couple overcame these objections, however, by touring together, during the summer of 1950, in a live vaudeville act they developed with the help of Spanish clown Pepito Pérez, together with Ball's radio show writers. Much of the material from their vaudeville act, including Lucy's memorable seal routine, was used in the pilot episode of I Love Lucy. Segments of the pilot were recreated in the sixth episode of the show's first season. During his time on the show, he became TV's most successful entrepreneur.
With Ball, Arnaz founded Desilu Productions. At that time, most television programs were broadcast live, and as the largest markets were in New York, the rest of the country received only kinescope images. Karl Freund, Arnaz's cameraman, and even Arnaz himself have been credited with the development of the multiple-camera setup production style using adjacent sets in front of a live audience that became the standard for subsequent situation comedies. The use of film enabled every station around the country to broadcast high-quality images of the show. Arnaz was told that it would be impossible to allow an audience onto a sound stage, but he worked with Freund to design a set that would accommodate an audience, allow filming, and adhere to fire and safety codes.
Network executives considered the use of film an unnecessary extravagance. Arnaz convinced them to allow Desilu to cover all additional costs associated with filming, under the stipulation that Desilu owned and controlled all rights to the film. Arnaz pushed the network to allow them to show Ball pregnant. According to Arnaz, the CBS network told him, "You cannot show a pregnant woman on television." Arnaz consulted a priest, a rabbi, and a Protestant minister, all of whom told him that there would be nothing wrong with showing a pregnant Lucy or using the word 'pregnant'. The network finally relented and let Arnaz and Ball weave the pregnancy into the story line, but remained adamant about eschewing use of 'pregnant', so Arnaz substituted 'expecting', pronouncing it 'spectin' in his Cuban accent. Oddly, the official titles of two of the series' episodes employed the word 'pregnant': "Lucy Is Enceinte", employing the French word for pregnant, and "Pregnant Women Are Unpredictable", although the episode titles never appeared on the show itself.
In addition to I Love Lucy, he executive produced The Ann Sothern Show and Those Whiting Girls (starring Margaret Whiting and Barbara Whiting Smith), and was involved in several other series such as The Untouchables, Whirlybirds, and Sheriff of Cochise / United States Marshal. He also produced the feature film Forever, Darling (1956), in which Ball and he starred. In the late 1950s, Arnaz proposed a Western television series to his then neighbor, Victor Orsatti, who formed a production company, Ror-Vic, in partnership with actor Rory Calhoun. Ror-Vic produced The Texan, which aired on Monday evenings on CBS from 1958 to 1960. Episodes were budgeted at $40,000 each, with two black-and-white segments filmed weekly through Desilu Studios. Despite the name, the series was mostly in Pearl Flats in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. The program could have been renewed for a third season had Calhoun not desired to return to films.
The original Desilu company continued long after Arnaz's divorce from Ball and her subsequent marriage to Gary Morton. Desilu produced its own programs and provided facilities to other producers. Desilu produced The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek. When Ball sold her share of Desilu to what became Paramount Television, Arnaz went on to form his own production company from his share of Desilu. With the newly formed Desi Arnaz Productions, he made The Mothers-In-Law (at Desilu) for United Artists Television and NBC. This sitcom ran for two seasons from 1967 to 1968. Arnaz's company was succeeded-in-interest by the company now known as Desilu, Too. Desilu, Too and Lucille Ball Productions work hand-in-hand with MPI Home Video in the home video reissues of the Ball/Arnaz material not currently owned by CBS (successor-in-interest to Paramount Television, which in turn succeeded the original Desilu company). This material includes Here's Lucy and The Mothers-In-Law, as well as many programs and specials Ball and Arnaz made independently of each other.
Arnaz and Ball decided that the show would maintain what Arnaz termed "basic good taste" and were therefore determined to avoid ethnic jokes, as well as humor based on physical handicaps or mental disabilities. Arnaz recalled that the only exception consisted of making fun of Ricky Ricardo's accent; even these jokes worked only when Lucy, as his wife, did the mimicking. In his family, he remarked that all the husbands practiced adultery and that he did so himself when he was with Ball. It primarily led to their divorce.
Arnaz was deeply patriotic about the United States. In his memoirs, he wrote that he knew of no other country in the world where "a sixteen-year-old kid, broke and unable to speak the language" could achieve the successes that he had.
Arnaz and Lucille Ball were married on November 30, 1940. Their marriage was turbulent. Convinced that Arnaz was being unfaithful to her, and also because he came home drunk several times, Ball filed for divorce in September 1944, but returned to him before the interlocutory decree became final. Arnaz and Ball subsequently had two children, actress Lucie Arnaz (born 1951) and actor Desi Arnaz, Jr. (born 1953).
Arnaz's marriage with Ball began to collapse under the strain of his growing problems with alcohol and womanizing. According to his memoir, the combined pressures of managing the production company, as well as supervising its day-to-day operations had greatly worsened as it grew much larger, and he felt compelled to seek outlets to alleviate the stress. Arnaz was also suffering from diverticulitis. Ball divorced him in 1960. When Ball returned to weekly television, Arnaz and she worked out an agreement regarding Desilu, wherein she bought him out.
Arnaz married his second wife, Edith Eyre Hirsch (née McSkimming), on March 2, 1963, and greatly reduced his show business activities. He served as executive producer of The Mothers-in-Law, and during its two-year run, made four guest appearances as a Spanish matador, Señor Delgado. Edith died in 1985, aged 67, from cancer. Although both Arnaz and Ball married other spouses after their divorce in 1960, they remained friends, and grew closer in his final decade. "I Love Lucy was never just a title", wrote Arnaz in the last years of his life. Family home video later aired on television showed Ball and Arnaz playing together with their grandson Simon shortly before Arnaz's death.
In the 1970s, Arnaz co-hosted a week of shows with daytime host and producer Mike Douglas. Vivian Vance appeared as a guest. Arnaz also headlined a Kraft Music Hall special on NBC that featured his two children, with a brief appearance by Vance. To promote his autobiography, A Book, on February 21, 1976, Arnaz served as a guest host on Saturday Night Live, with his son, Desi, Jr., also appearing. The program contained spoofs of I Love Lucy and The Untouchables. The spoofs of I Love Lucy were supposed to be earlier concepts of the show that never made it on the air, such as "I Love Louie", where Desi lived with Louis Armstrong. He read Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky" in a heavy Cuban accent (he pronounced it "Habberwocky"). Desi Jr., played the drums and, supported by the SNL band, Desi sang both "Babalu" and another favorite from his dance band days, "Cuban Pete"; the arrangements were similar to the ones used on I Love Lucy. He ended the broadcast by leading the entire cast in a raucous conga line through the SNL studio.
Arnaz and his wife eventually moved to Del Mar, California, where he lived the rest of his life in semiretirement. He owned a horse-breeding farm in Corona, California, and raced thoroughbreds. He contributed to charitable and nonprofit organizations, including San Diego State University. He also taught classes at San Diego State in studio production and acting for television. Arnaz made a guest appearance on the TV series Alice, starring Linda Lavin and produced by I Love Lucy co-creators Madelyn Pugh (Madelyn Davis) and Bob Carroll, Jr.
Arnaz was a regular smoker for much of his life and often smoked cigarettes on the set, as well as on-camera in I Love Lucy. He smoked Cuban cigars into his sixties. Arnaz was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986. He died several months later on December 2, 1986, at the age of 69. Arnaz was cremated and his ashes scattered. His death came just five days before Ball received the Kennedy Center Honors. He was survived by his children and his mother, Dolores, who died on October 24, 1988, at the age of 92.
Desi Arnaz has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one at 6301 Hollywood Boulevard for contributions to motion pictures and one at 6250 Hollywood Boulevard for television. In 1956, Arnaz won a Golden Globe for Best TV Show, for the work he, his colleagues, and studio had done while he was served as head of production.
The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center museum is in Jamestown, New York, and the Desi Arnaz Bandshell in the Lucille Ball Memorial Park is in Celoron, New York.2001: I Love Lucy's 50th Anniversary Special (TV) (performer: "California, Here I Come", "Babalu (Babalú)") ... a.k.a. "The I Love Lucy 50th Anniversary Special" – USA (DVD title)
1958: The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1 episode, 1958) ... a.k.a. "We Love Lucy" – USA (syndication title) – Lucy Wins a Race Horse (1958) TV episode (performer: "The Bayamo")
1952: I Love Lucy (3 episodes, 1952–1956) ... a.k.a. "Lucy in Connecticut" – USA (rerun title) ... a.k.a. "The Sunday Lucy Show" – USA (rerun title) ... a.k.a. "The Top Ten Lucy Show" – USA (rerun title) – Lucy and Bob Hope (1956) TV episode (performer: "Nobody Loves the Ump" (uncredited)) – Ricky's European Booking (1955) TV episode (performer: "Forever, Darling" (uncredited)) – Cuban Pals (1952) TV episode (performer: "The Lady in Red", "Similau")
1956: Forever, Darling (performer: "Forever, Darling" (reprise))
1949: Holiday in Havana (writer: "Holiday In Havana", "The Arnaz Jam")
1946: Desi Arnaz and His Orchestra (performer: "Guadalajara", "Babalu (Babalú)", "Tabu (Tabú)", "Pin Marin") ... a.k.a. "Melody Masters: Desi Arnaz and His Orchestra" – USA (series title)
1942: Four Jacks and a Jill ("Boogie Woogie Conga" 1941))
1941: Father Takes a Wife ("Perfidia" (1939), "Mi amor" (1941))
1940: Too Many Girls (performer: "Spic 'n' Spanish", "You're Nearer", "Conga") ("'Cause We Got Cake")