As America’s funniest and most beloved TV couple, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo have been a constant presence on television around the world since the characters first appeared in the iconic sitcom “I Love Lucy,” which premiered on CBS in 1951. As the quintessential dizzy redhead and the charismatic Cuban bandleader she married, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were among the brightest stars in the growing television universe, delighting their record-breaking audiences each week with Lucy’s hare-brained schemes and hilarious antics. But as America enjoyed the sitcom world of Lucy and Ricky, Ball and Arnaz were actually facing problems that could have brought an end to their new-found success and their marriage.
Like generations of Americans, Todd Black, the Oscar-nominated co-founder of production company Escape Artists, grew up loving Lucy. He dreamed of making a film about the legendary couple’s lives, but when he first approached their children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr., in 1995, they declined to sell the rights. Undaunted, he tried again nearly two decades later and found the siblings had changed their minds.
With the rights secured, the producer began searching for the perfect writer to tell the story. “The script needed to be witty and clever and original because Lucy and Desi were,” he says. “One person came to mind immediately: Aaron Sorkin. To be able to produce an Aaron Sorkin script is like winning the lottery. When we met, I told him I’m not talking to anybody else, and I’m not going to let you leave until you say yes.”
With the help of Jenna Block, then Escape Artists’ vice president of film and television, who had written her Wellesley College senior thesis on Ball and her creative partnership with Arnaz, Black doggedly pursued Sorkin for the project. During what the acclaimed writer, director and producer calls “an 18-month courtship,” he was deluged him with books, articles and video footage Block had compiled. They revealed facts about the couple he hadn’t known, including the accusation that Ball was a Communist, which in that era could have been enough to end her and her husband’s careers.
After sifting through the historical documents, Sorkin began to visualize a unique structure for the film. He proposed going back in time some 70 years to chronicle one work week in the life of Ball and Arnaz, interspersed with flashbacks that give the audience a glimpse of the couple’s history. “I like claustrophobic spaces and short periods of time,” he explains. “So the idea of setting most of the film during a production week of ‘I Love Lucy’ appealed to me. It became a matter of gathering enough information to create an interesting story.”
Black thought the approach was brilliant. “The script is inspired by the truth, but boldly imagined,” he says. “It’s accessible, entertaining, informative, emotional and sometimes tragic. Aaron has the most vivid imagination of any writer I’ve met in my career. He created a romantic drama interspersed with comedy that shines a light on one of the most popular and pioneering television teams of all time.”
“I Love Lucy” still has an army of avid followers of all ages, from older adults who remember the original broadcast to generations of fans who laughed along to reruns when they were home sick from school. “If you grew up in a house with a television it would be hard to avoid ‘I Love Lucy,’” Sorkin observes. “But this movie isn’t about ‘I Love Lucy.’ We see shards
of the show to illustrate Lucille Ball’s comic genius. She was like a chess player when it came to comedy. She could look at a scene or a gag and see what it would look like in its final form. We’re looking into Lucy’s head.”
One of Sorkin’s key insights is his belief that Ricky Ricardo’s iconic catchphrase, “Lucy, I’m home,” was far more significant for Ball than a throwaway line of sitcom dialogue. The actress’ own nomadic childhood was marred by a series of personal tragedies and financial setbacks. At 14, she moved to New York City by herself. But while she craves domesticity, Arnaz has other interests. “He loves her but that life doesn’t suit him,” says Sorkin. “He likes to drink, he likes to go out and he needs time away from his wife who is a bigger star than he is.”
That conflict serves as one of the cornerstones of the movie, notes Black. “She wanted to have a home like the Ricardos’, but that proved elusive. The more successful the show got, the less it became true in her personal life. Aaron had the brilliance to let that be the shining beacon of Lucy’s heartbreak.”
Through flashbacks the audience witnesses the couple’s whirlwind courtship and their marriage less than a year after they met. Ball’s film and radio work kept her in Los Angeles while Desi was frequently on the road with his orchestra. When she is offered the opportunity to adapt her hit radio comedy, “My Favorite Husband,” for television, she has one condition: Desi has to play the husband. The opportunity to work side-by-side on “I Love Lucy” finally provided Lucille with the hope of a normal family life.
Black says he was surprised and moved by every page of Sorkin’s screenplay. “It is very emotional, sometimes like a knife in your heart. I also think this is the first time since The American President that romance has risen to the top in Aaron’s writing and it is beautiful, sexy and fun. Some of the scenes make me laugh out loud. And it’s hard to make me laugh out loud after all these years!”
Being The Ricardos is available on Amazon Prime starting December 21st, 2021.