Lucille Ball is perhaps one of the most beloved women in American television history. Her breakout role as “the lovable tartan delinquents” in the sitcom Cheers made her a memorable leading lady and earned her four Academy Award nominations. More impressive than her accomplishments were the times she graced the big screen, portraying various comic characters and romantic leads. Lucille Ball trivia will show that the versatile actress achieved much more than playing sweet little sister to Cheers’ Fred Sanford: She was an accomplished performer on screen and off.
Lucille Ball had a difficult childhood, even as a child. (Age 15, remember how your mother would hide the bottle of whiskey you had over the open flames of the stove during family dinners in the back room of your home in the middle of winter.) On the television program Age of Young America, her younger brother Johnny (played by William Butler) said, “I used to believe that there was no way for girls to get a man. After giving birth to my sister Lucille Ball…”
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When Lucille Ball gave birth to her first daughter, Richard (age 2), it marked the start of a long and difficult marriage for both her husband. The Ball family was always on edge, always dealing with domestic violence. It was particularly difficult for Lucille and Richard, since Richard was autistic and required constant supervision, and Lucille often felt that she had to step in and take care of her children all the time. Age of Young America is perhaps her finest performance as an adult, as the character struggles to come into her own and find true love, while maintaining her own individuality and independence.
A great deal has been written about Lucille Ball’s early life, both in terms of her achievements as a comedian, and her more infamous moments as a writer and actress. But one aspect of her life remains little understood. Lucille Ball is one of the few women who studied acting seriously and became a professional, classic Hollywood actress. She studied with such titans as Ava Gardner and director Victor Fleming and even had a real love affair with legendary screenwriter Louis B. Mayer, whom she worked with on The Honeymooners.
One of the most important factors in Lucille Ball’s success as an actress was that she was in a position where, with many other female comedians, she could channel her anger and frustration directly at the men in her life. Her relationship with Hollywood was particularly poignant, because after the death of her first husband, Frank Lloyd Wright, she found herself living with an alcoholic playboy who owed her so much money that he was not able to pay her anymore. After leaving him for another man, Lucille decided to form a relationship with Arsenault de Rebeil, a French actor and director who would make Lucille Ball famous.
It was through this association with an important French director that Lucille Ball developed the comedic timing that made her movies so successful. Her relationships with Ava Gardner and director Victor Fleming helped to launch her career in Hollywood, while her early relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright helped to launch her own film career. As was the case with many of the great women of Hollywood, Lucille Ball enjoyed working with both men and women, but in particular, men who were famous for their temperamental nature and often used abusive language. With the exception of a brief reference to “a real lady” in One Hundred Strong (based on a true story), Lucille Ball’s films never showed her interacting with men, although she certainly did receive a great deal of criticism from men who felt she was nothing more than a sexualized femme fatale.