D esi Arnaz was an all-around entertainer. Not only was he an orchestra leader and musician, but he revolutionized television with I Love Lucy, the classic sitcom starring him and his wife Lucille Ball.
Google has honored Arnaz with a Google Doodle on March 2, which would have been his 102nd birthday. “Today’s Doodle celebrates the life and legacy of Desi Arnaz,” Google wrote. “[He’s] widely considered a trailblazer in the American entertainment industry, and in 1956 he won a Golden Globe for Best Television Achievement, an award which recognized his impact on American comedy both in front and behind the camera.”
Here’s what you need to know about Arnaz:
1. He Fled to the U.S. Following the Cuban Revolution & Started His Career As a Musician
Arnaz was born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III in Santiago, Cuba. His father, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Alberni II, was Santiago’s youngest mayor and a member of the Cuban House of Representatives. Due to the 1933 Cuban Revolution, however, Arnaz’s father was jailed and all of his property was confiscated. Following his release, the Arnaz family fled to Miami, Florida.
According to PBS, Arnaz quickly turned to show business to support himself. He performed as both a solo musician and a guitarist for legendary bandleader Xavier Cugat. He wouldn’t land his big break until 1939, however, when he starred in the Broadway musical Too Many Girls. The success of the musical inspired Arnaz to move to Hollywood, where he would spend the next several years starring in comedies like Father Takes a Wife, The Navy Comes Through, and the film adaptation of Too Many Girls.
The latter cast him opposite Lucille Ball, and the actors quickly fell in love. They eloped on November 30, 1940. A knee injury kept Arnaz from enlisting in World War II, but he spent the duration of battle traveling and performing for the troops with his orchestra.
2. He & Lucille Ball Pioneered the Television Sitcom With ‘I Love Lucy’
In 1951, Arnaz and Ball pitched a sitcom to CBS where they would play fictionalized versions of themselves. According to the Huffington Post, CBS executives were weary of having Ball star opposite Arnaz due to his Cuban heritage and thick accent. The couple held their ground, however, and opted the fund the pilot themselves. CBS eventually picked it up, and I Love Lucy became a ratings powerhouse for the next six years.
Huffington Post credits Arnaz with many of the techniques used in modern sitcoms. “He virtually invented modern television comedy,” the publication wrote. “He developed, with his cameraman, the three-camera set-up, so programs could be performed live on a soundstage, before a studio audience. He shot on film, not kinescope, so he improved viewing quality geometrically.”
Arnaz and Ball also retained the rights to the series, which allowed them to invent the practice of syndicated reruns. This has become commonplace for television networks. In addition to Arnaz’s Golden Globe, I Love Lucy won 5 Emmy Awards and was the first sitcom to ever its run at the top of the Nielsen ratings. It proved so popular with viewers that a modified version of the series ran for three more seasons and 13 specials between 1957 and 1960.
3. His Production Company Went on to Create Sitcoms Like ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ & ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’
After I Love Lucy ended its historic run, Arnaz continued to produce television. The company Desilu, which he co-founded with Ball, would go on to finance and oversee classic sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Lucy Show. Even after he and Ball divorced in 1960, the pair continued to see tremendous success as business partners.
The latter eventually sold her share of Desilu to what became Paramount Television, leading Arnaz to form his own production company, Desi Arnaz Productions. The first sitcom released under the new banner, The Mothers-In-Law, ran for two seasons from 1967 to 1968.
Arnaz continued to make television appearances late into his career. He starred on a Kraft Music Hall special for NBC, and in 1976, he served as a guest host on Saturday Night Live. During the episode, he partook in spoofs of I Love Lucy and a show that he produced during the 1950s, The Untouchables.
4. He Was an Author & an Acting Teacher At San Diego State
Arnaz continued to work tirelessly into his old age. He married his second wife, Edith Eyre Hirsch, in 1963, and moved to Del Mar, California. It was there that he began taking on interests outside of television. He bred horses at his ranch, and donated to charitable and nonprofit organizations like San Diego State University.
He was also a part-time teacher at San Diego State, where he gave lectures on production and acting for television. Arnaz published his memoir, A Book, in 1976. In it he detailed his rise to fame, as well as his marriage to Ball, who he remained close to even after their divorce. When asked whether she and Arnaz got along in a 1980 interview, Ball said: “Always have, we didn’t even get two lawyers for the divorce.”
Ball went on to say that she was close with Arnaz’s second wife and that they often spent time together. Hirsch died in 1985 from complications related to cancer. Arnaz was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after, and he passed away on December 2, 1986. He was 69.
5. His Children Lucie & Desi Arnaz Jr. Are Also Entertainers
Arnaz’s name lives on through his children, both of whom are entertainers. Lucie Arnaz, 67, is an actress, singer, and producer who made her screen debut opposite her mother on Here’s Lucy. She went on to act in a number of popular TV shows, including Fantasy Island, Murder, She Wrote, and Law & Order.
Lucie starred in her own sitcom, The Lucie Arnaz Show, which ran for one season on CBS. Still, her most notable performance was in the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer, where she starred opposite Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier. She earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture.
Desi Arnaz, Jr., 66, is an actor and musician. He first gained attention as the drummer of the pop group Dino, Desi & Billy, which scored a pair of hit singles in 1965: “I’m a Fool” and “Not the Lovin’ Kind.” From there, Desi, Jr. crossed over into acting, appearing on shows like The Brady Bunch, Saturday Night Live and The Streets of San Francisco.
Desi, Jr. also appeared in the 1992 drama The Mambo Kings, where he played his father. The film includes a scene where Desi, Jr. plays his father’s character Ricky Ricardo in a recreated scene from I Love Lucy. He continues to tour and perform.