It was an ignominious ending to the most brilliant career a television star had ever - or will ever - have. Lucille Ball's unexpected 1986 comeback became her only series failure; a flop of major proportions.
Lucille Ball retired in 1974 after twenty-seven years of Monday night CBS broadcasts. Lucy's Number One Fan Michael Stern, a friend of the star beginning in her Here's Lucy years, tells us, "I think she was tired of the weekly grind and television was changing. That's when All In The Family was starting, Good Times and all these Norman Lear shows were on and she wasn't that type of person.
"It was time for her to relax. The kids were grown and she was going to do yearly specials. She probably thought she was going to do more than she did, she only did a handful of them, like five or six."
ABC paid a fortune to get Lucille Ball back on TV for the 1986-87 season, guaranteeing her a spot on the fall schedule with no pilot, audience testing or creative interference from the network. Produced by Aaron Spelling (who was hot then with Dynasty), the scripts were pathetic and the casting devastating.
Poor Lucy. It was her intent to update the old-fashioned style of sitcom - but this misguided production suffered from so many flaws it's hard to imagine a more poorly executed vehicle for the first lady of television. The disjointed first episode that set up the confusing premise was written by Lucy veterans Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn (Pugh Martin) Davis.
On Life With Lucy, Lucille Ball (in what looked like Kabuki makeup) played Lucy Barker, an impossibly energetic, health-conscious grandmother who comes to live with her daughter, son-in-law and their two kids in South Pasadena.
Back to play the heavy was 80 year-old Gale Gordon as Lucy's deceased husband's business partner Curtis McGibbons. He also moves into the house in the first episode (he was Lucy's daughter's father-in-law - I told you it was confusing).
Curtis runs a hardware store in South Pas (that Lucy inherited half ownership in when her husband died), so naturally Lucy decides that she'll 'help out' at the store.
"Life With Lucy on Saturdays may be pivotal to the success of the whole lineup," ABC's VP for scheduling stated in the fall of 1986. "People will surely watch the premiere, but the few weeks after that will be critical."
Michael Stern tells us about hanging out on the set - "When you were there you had a great time. When she did her last series, Life With Lucy, she couldn't believe that 12 years had passed between the two shows. She was having so much fun. She had more energy than I had and I was 25.
"She wanted to do everything. She wasn't like a star. She was happy to be coming back, she even said she was bringing 200 people back to work.
"She was happy that some of the same people that worked on I Love Lucy were with her 40 years later. The sound man, who was hard of hearing (which she always thought was funny), the director, Gale Gordon, her stand-in, they were all there.
"Oh, and her writers. She was able to get other writers, who wrote for M.A.S.H. or whatever, but she wanted her writers. There were lot of mistakes.
"She was missing an Ethel. One of the best episodes they had was with Audrey Meadows who played her sister.
"Lucy had more fun with John Ritter than with anybody. On that week, Lucy called it 'Ritter-itis' because he kept making her laugh. During the actual filming he broke her up. She had to say 'Cut!' She said that was only the third time in her life while filming a show that she actually had to say 'Cut' because she was laughing so hard. It was not like her."
The premiere episode did fairly well in the ratings (number 23 for the week) and the ovation that the 72 year-old comedienne got from the studio audience on her entrance went on for so long that most of it had to be edited out when the show aired.
The new Lucy was very much like the old Lucy. She was scatterbrained, meddling and rendered apoplectic in the presence of any B-list celebrity. Plots tended to revolve around the mechanical sight gag of the third act; in the first episode, a bubble machine floods the store, in another Lucy sinks into a hole on a construction site.
It might have been amusing if a forty-year old woman in the 1960s arranged the items in a hardware store in alphabetical order, but a seventy-five year old woman in the 1980s really should have known better.
Life With Lucy was cancelled after only three months due to anemic ratings that kept getting worse and worse as the weeks wore on. ABC bought out Lucy's contract; five episodes were filmed but never shown during the original network run.
Horrendous reviews and sudden cancellation crushed Lucille Ball's spirit. She took the rejection personally - believing that America no longer loved Lucy.
Michael Stern explains, "She was devastated. She said she had never been fired before and she really thought nobody liked her anymore. She was really hurt. I think she was more upset with ABC because they didn't give her a chance, seven episodes then out.
"All the reviews were bad. And she said, 'You know what, it wouldn't have been so bad if the reviews said, 'Lucille Ball's new series had no pizzazz' or whatever, but they kept knocking me.' They said; 'Lucille Ball is old,' 'She should be in a retirement home,' 'She should be dead.' Literally, they were saying the nastiest things about her. That she could not understand."
Lucille Ball died on April 26, 1989.
"One of the shows I worked on in the 1980s was Life With Lucy, on which I have many amusing stories. Here are a few:
* The post-production supervisor on the show was Michael Martin, who coincidentally enough, was the son of Quinn Martin, famed TV producer. I believe his mother was Madeline Pugh, co-writer of the original I Love Lucy show, and producer/writer of Life With Lucy.
* The head lighting cameraman on the show was Leonard South, one of the finest cinematographers around, who was terrific to work with. (I did all the color-correction on the show, over at Complete Post in Hollywood.) Among other tidbits, he revealed to me that Lucy "never had a face-lift, but instead had makeup artists pull back her skin temporarily with adhesive tape, then conceal the tape under her wig." Reportedly, she never used her "actual hair" in any of her TV series. Lucy was also very conscious of lighting and filters, and we did numerous tests to make sure she didn't look too bad on TV. (All four film cameras had Mitchell "B" soft filters, and we used zero enhancement to ever sharpen the picture.)
* Lucy was in a foul mood for much of the show's filming, partially because she had elected to stop smoking for health reasons when the show began. Sadly, her ex-husband Desi Arnaz was dying in Palm Springs while the show was produced, and he would occasionally call her late at night in a delirium and beg her forgiveness for his years of cheating and abuse. She was kind enough to take those calls, but the calls were frequent enough that it cut into her sleep time and also affected her performances on the show.
* The single best episode of the show (or the least horrible), as was noted, was the one with Audrey Meadows playing her long-lost sister. There was talk for a few days about changing the show format and adding Audrey to the permanent cast, but nothing ever came of it; I think Audrey was independently wealthy from marriage and didn't need to work. I told one producer maybe adding Audrey to the cast could result in a sort of a new Golden Girls show (high in the ratings at the time), but he shrugged his shoulders and told me he didn't think Life With Lucy was long for this world.
* One of the co-executive producers was Lucy's husband, Gary Morton. Gary had produced her Here's Lucy series more than a decade earlier, but knew very little about modern TV production. I remember once when he was in an edit bay, "supervising" the cutting of Life With Lucy, he became distressed when he saw that there wasn't much of a reaction after a Lucy joke. The editor patiently explained to him, "Gary, the audience isn't laughing because this is take 3. They've already heard the joke twice before. We'll just cut in the laughs when we do the mix later." Morton got very angry and said, "Absolutely not! I demand that there be no canned laughter in this show!" The editor calmed him down and explained, "No, Gary -- we'll use the real audience laughs from Take 1, when they heard the joke for the first time." Morton calmed down... until five minutes later, when the same thing happened again.
* The exterior of Lucy's "Hardware Store" featured in the show was actually a vacant storefront located directly across the street from what is now the Warner Hollywood Studios, a couple of blocks west of the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and LaBrea Avenue in Hollywood.
* Much to my shock, Lucy never memorized any of her lines on the show, and instead used cue cards. This is normally verboten by any actors, even sitcom or soap opera actors who have to learn their lines quickly. Apparently, Lucy had been doing this for more than ten years. Michael Martin told me that if you look all the way back to The Lucy Show, you can see Lucy looking away from the actors in the scene to the cue cards, right before she says her lines. Reportedly, back then Lucy had no time to rehearse, because of her board meetings and other commitments as the head of Desilu Studios. I think she just continued to use cue cards because of stage fright or a bad memory (or maybe a little of both). There were very few screw-ups on the Life With Lucy set; Lucy ran a very tight ship, and everybody knew their lines (even if Lucy had to read hers). Gale Gordon was particularly good at his part, and I don't think he even blew his lines once during filming.
* I got to meet Lucy briefly on the set, because I knew one of the actors, Donovan "Scotty" Scott (a talented comic actor who happened to live in my neighborhood in West Hollywood). When I gave her one of my official CBS-distributed tapes of I Love Lucy to autograph, she snatched it out of my hands, then stared at it, gave me a dirty look, and said, "You know somethin'? I didn't get a fuckin' dime for these things!" I was a little stunned, but not so stunned that I didn't mumble out my name and my profuse thanks for the autograph. She was actually nice about it, and I noticed that her autograph actually had the stylish "L" from the old show. Scotty told me that her real signature is nothing like that, but she altered her autograph just to give her fans what they expected.
* It's not true that Lucy only yelled "cut" on the Ritter episode (which was actually the first one filmed). She did it several times on the last couple of shows, when she was in her worst moods, because of the rumors that the show was going to be cancelled. I've never worked on a show, before or since, where an actor yelled "cut."
* All of us "little people" who worked on the show knew it was a complete train wreck, but the executive producers and writers insisted from the very beginning that Life With Lucy would zoom to the top of the ratings and be on the air for years. Sadly, this didn't prove to be the case.
"The episodes were never rerun, nor were they ever syndicated. Still, with all the stuff out on DVD, I'm surprised that Aaron Spelling Productions (who owned the rights) doesn't put them out legitimately. I can tell you the best shows were the ones that aired; the others were reaaalllly bad.
"So those are my Lucy stories. Scotty told me he stayed in touch with Lucy after the show ended; he said she'd sometimes start the conversation by saying, "Well, I just scanned the obits in Variety, and I'm not in there yet, so I guess I'm still alive." Scotty told me she was always gracious and professional with him, and was a genuinely good person, not one of your typical, shallow Hollywood types."
"I did not see mention of something I distinctly remember at the time - that ABC's inspiration for launching Life with Lucy was the runaway success of the Cosby Show in 1984-85 - where a familiar TV star from the past was able to helm a very updated, modern show that became a ratings smash. Also, the rebirth of the sitcom in '85 (which was in one of its periodic 'death nell' eras) was ascribed to Cosby, which is another indirect link to inspiring Lucy's ill fated comeback."
- Paul C. Sacramento CA
ORDER: Here's Lucy Season 1 on DVD
Life With Lucy cast:
Lucille Ball - Lucy Barker
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