It happened somewhere between the clunky premier episode (Lucy Thinks Ricky Is Trying to Murder Her) and her first classic routine, the Vitameatavegamin commercial, in which Lucy gets steadily soused as she keeps downing spoonfuls of the alcohol-laced potion she's trying to hawk on TV. (Watch the spasm that jolts her face when she gets her first taste of the foul brew; it could serve as a textbook for comics well into the next millennium.) I Love Lucy debuted on CBS in October 1951, but at first it looked little different from other domestic comedies that were starting to make the move from radio to TV, like My Favorite Husband, the radio show Ball had co-starred in for three years. Lucy Ricardo was, in those early I Love Lucy episodes, just a generic daffy housewife. Ethel (Vivian Vance), her neighbor and landlady, was a stock busybody. Desi Arnaz, as bandleader Ricky Ricardo, hadn't yet become one of the finest straight men in TV history. William Frawley, as Fred Mertz, seemed a Hollywood has-been in search of work, which he was.
Then magic struck. Guided by Ball's comic brilliance, the show developed the shape and depth of great comedy. Lucy's quirks and foibles--her craving to be in show biz, her crazy schemes that always backfired, the constant fights with the Mertzes--became as particularized and familiar as the face across the dinner table. For four out of its six seasons (only six!), I Love Lucy was the No. 1-rated show on television; at its peak, in 1952-53, it averaged an incredible 67.3 rating, meaning that on a typical Monday night, more than two-thirds of all homes with TV sets were tuned to Lucy.
Ball's dizzy redhead with the elastic face and saucer eyes was the model for scores of comic TV females to follow. She and her show, moreover, helped define a still nascent medium. Before I Love Lucy, TV was feeling its way, adapting forms from other media. Live TV drama was an outgrowth of Broadway theater; game shows were transplanted from radio; variety shows and early comedy stars like Milton Berle came out of vaudeville. I Love Lucy was unmistakably a television show, and Ball the perfect star for the small screen. "I look like everybody's idea of an actress," she once said, "but I feel like a housewife." Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason were big men with larger-than-life personas; Lucy was one of us.
She grew up in Jamestown, N.Y., where her father, an electrician, died when she was just three. At 15 she began making forays to New York City to try to break into show business. She had little luck as an actress but worked as a model before moving to Hollywood in 1933 for a part in the chorus of Roman Scandals. Strikingly pretty, with chestnut hair dyed blond (until MGM hairdressers, seeking a more distinctive look, turned it red in 1942), she landed bit parts in B movies and moved up to classy fare like Stage Door, in which she held her own with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.
Buster Keaton, the great silent clown working as a consultant at MGM, recognized her comic gifts and worked with her on stunts. She got a few chances to show off her talent in films like DuBarry Was a Lady (with Red Skelton) and Fancy Pants (with Bob Hope) but never broke through to the top. By the end of the 1940s, with Ball approaching 40, her movie career was all but finished.