From the moment she saw her first moving picture, Lucille Ball knew she was going to be a big-time movie star. She dedicated the rest of her life — her childhood, her 20s, and every decade after — to making this dream a reality. With every dead-end audition and tiny movie role, however, her dream seemed more and more impossible to achieve.
Even the Queen of Comedy had to start somewhere, and if Lucille Ball hadn’t failed to become a movie star, Hollywood today would be a lot worse for wear. Thankfully, perseverance was in Lucy’s blood. If she couldn’t “make it” in on the big screen, well, then she’d just have to aim for a slightly smaller target.
1. Lucy was raised as a Baptist, and her family’s American roots went all the way back to the original Thirteen Colonies. Her impressive ancestors included Elder John Crandall and Edmund Rice, both early immigrants from England.
2. Lucy had a somewhat unusual phobia: birds. She traced her phobia back to the day her father died. That same day, a bird was trapped in the house and struggled to get free, which is the only memory she had of the day her father died.
3. When she was 12, Lucy’s stepfather encouraged her to audition to be a chorus girl at his Shriner’s meetings. This greatly appealed to Lucy, who had found herself craving recognition and attention from a young age.
4. Lucy’s mother, DeDe, tried to separate 14-year-old Lucy from a bad boyfriend by enrolling her in the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York City. It’s there that she shared the classroom with future star Bette Davis.
5. She worked as a model for a few years, and did what she could to stand out: She dyed her hair blonde and used the stage name Diane Belmont. Still, she was fired from all chorus work on Broadway she could find.
6. Lucy’s “big break” wasn’t all that big. Despite nabbing a job as a contract player for RKO Radio Pictures, her roles weren’t very substantial. Still, she was able to work alongside the Marx Brothers, Ginger Rogers, and Katharine Hepburn.
RKO Radio Pictures
7. It took Lucy some time to figure out where she belonged in Hollywood. “A lot of the really beautiful girls didn’t want to do some of the things I did,” she explained. If you needed an actress to swim with a crocodile, for example, you called Lucy.
8. She finally got a leading role in the movie-musical Too Many Girls, and it was there that Lucy met her future TV and real-life husband, Desi Arnaz. The duo eloped just a few months after their initial meeting!
9. During the ‘40s, Lucy was so prominent in small-scale movies that she was given the industry title of “Queen of the B’s,” or B-movies. Ironically, her work on the radio show My Favorite Husband is what eventually led to her real big break.
10. From My Favorite Husband came I Love Lucy, which was performed as a vaudeville show during the ‘40s because CBS was unconvinced that television viewers would accept a white woman married to a Cuban man.
11. Once CBS saw the success of the duo’s vaudeville act, in which Lucy played a housewife who schemed to perform with her husband’s band, they added it to their line-up. It was produced by Desilu Productions, the couple’s own production company.
12. Lucy was actually the first woman to run a Hollywood production company! Desilu Productions not only produced I Love Lucy, but also silver-screen versions of Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and The Untouchables.
13. I Love Lucy wasn’t just one of TV’s biggest hits, it was also proof that women in Hollywood don’t wither away once they turn 35. Lucy was 40 when the show started in 1951, and her co-star Vivian Vance was 42.
14. Desilu Productions pioneered many methods that are commonplace today, from the interconnected set design to the use of a live studio audience. The studio was sold in 1967 for, by today’s standards, $130 million.
15. Of course, someone as vivacious as Lucy was no stranger to controversy. When word got out in the ‘50s that Lucy was a former communist, Desi Arnaz told the studio audience, “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that is not legitimate.”
16. Lucy’s famous brassy red hair actually wasn’t red! In fact, her hairstylist claimed that it was more of an “apricot” color, and that the TV’s technicolor made it seem like a deeper shade. Lucy was actually born a brunette!
17. Another groundbreaking moment on the show was when Lucy and her on-screen persona were pregnant. She was the first pregnant actress to play a pregnant woman on TV, though TV standards of the time forced the cast to use the word “expecting.”
18. Only one of I Love Lucy’s famous scenes had near-fatal consequences. When Lucy was crushing grapes into juice in Italy, the actress playing her enemy didn’t speak English and accidentally held Lucy’s head in the juice for far longer than anticipated!
19. Though Lucy and Desi filed for divorce in 1960, they remained lifelong friends. Professionally, Lucy’s career was only just getting started: The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy were two other smash television hits.
20. Lucy was honored with many awards throughout her career, but none more poignant than the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she was awarded posthumously. It just goes to show that a humble career can truly evolve into something special…
21. And nothing is more humbling than a mid-career lull. After The Dick Van Dyke Show ended, many fans expected Mary Tyler Moore to jump right into films, but only one was successful: Thoroughly Modern Millie. So Moore gave something else a try.
22. She returned to the small screen for a short special: Dick Van Dyke and the Other Woman. Audiences and critics alike were so enamored with her performance that CBS offered her a full season pickup, no questions asked.
23. And that’s how The Mary Tyler Moore Show was born. Originally, Moore’s character Mary Richards was a divorcee starting a new life in a new city, but CBS ran into an unexpected problem once they started testing the show.
24. Because they associated Moore with her last role as Dick Van Dyke’s wife, viewers couldn’t stomach the thought of her character divorcing a nice guy like that! So they removed the divorce angle and plowed forward, searching for the rest of the cast.
25. Viewers will recognize Gavin MacLeod as Mary’s charming colleague, but he was originally supposed to play her boss, Lou. MacLeod read the part and suggested he could bring more to Murray’s character. Producers agreed and moved on to casting Ted.
26. Lovable doofus Ted Baxter was a tricky part to cast. Producers wanted Jack Cassidy, but he turned them down — he had played the dumb hunk for another role and was worried about being typecast. That’s when one producer spotted Ted Knight.
27. When producer Dave Davis happened to see a production of the play You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running, Knight stuck out to him immediately. On a whim, they asked him to come in and read for the role.
28. Knight was living paycheck to paycheck and pulled out all the stops for the audition. He even bought a blue anchorman’s blazer at a thrift store just for it! That paid off because he was hired. But it wasn’t smooth sailing for showrunners from there.
29. Knight once stormed into the director’s office to quit. “I can’t play Ted Baxter anymore,” he said. “Everybody thinks I’m stupid and I’m not.” After some calming words from the director, Knight agreed to stay on. But problems continued to pile on.
30. Mary’s neighbor Rhoda was supposed to be frumpy and a “loser,” but producers fell in love with Valerie Harper when she auditioned. They decided her self-deprecating attitude was enough to make up for her more glamorous appearance. Finally, it was time to shoot the pilot.
31. When they shot the original pilot, the actors could barely get a laugh out of the studio audience. Afterward they realized why: Rhoda came off as too mean and tainted the rest of the show. So they came up with a solution.
32. They re-shot the pilot with one change. Mary’s landlord, Phyllis, brings her daughter by who happens to mention, “Aunt Rhoda’s really a lot of fun! Mom hates her…” It worked, and the second audience ate it up. Critics were not as kind, though.
33. In a shocking twist of mid-century misogyny, critics called Mary “desperate” for being unmarried and Rhoda a “man-crazy klutz.” Even The New York Times thought the show was “preposterous.” Seven seasons later, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
34. The Mary Tyler Moore show broke all kinds of records and went on to win 29 Primetime Emmy awards. Moore and Harper each won several individual awards, and the show brought home three “Outstanding Comedy Series” honors over the seven years.
35. One of the Emmy-winning episodes, “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” features Mary trying to keep from laughing at a clown’s funeral. As it turns out, Moore actually struggled to not laugh on set and had to bite her cheek to stop giggling. But audiences still wanted more.
36. Because The Mary Tyler Moore Show was so successful, CBS eventually greenlit three spin-offs: Rhoda, Phyllis, and Lou Grant, each focusing on a different supporting character. Some cast members weren’t sad to see one particular actor depart…
37. The men on the show were thrilled to see Harper leave for Rhoda. It was nothing personal — Moore’s scenes with Harper usually took place in Mary’s apartment, meaning her news station co-workers didn’t get as much screen time!
38. Cloris Leachman’s spin-off, Phyllis, was much more tragic. Barbara Colby played Sherry on both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Leachman’s spin-off, but three episodes in, she was murdered while walking to her car.
39. With producers worried about a decline in the show’s quality, Moore decided to end the show after seven seasons. In a rare breaking of the fourth wall, the entire cast came back on set for an on-camera send off after the final scene.
40. There are many reasons to fall in love with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and we should all thank our lucky stars that it helped bring Betty White to prominence. After the show, her career skyrocketed.
41. Still, no one believed The Golden Girls would be a success. A show about four older women living out their retirements in Miami wasn’t exactly the kind of content producers thought people were going to eat up. But these ladies had a surprise in store for the networks.
42. It was a smash hit! It quickly dominated Saturday nights, and other networks couldn’t find anything that could compete. Soon, the “Golden Girls” were the biggest stars in television. But the four women had an unlikely road to the spotlight.
43. Estelle Getty (Sophia) was the first cast, but she was actually a year younger than Bea Arthur, who played her daughter! She sat through three hours in the makeup chair every show to make her look much older than she was. And that wasn’t all they had to deal with…
44. Estelle had a bad case of stage fright! As the least experienced performer, she was constantly worried she’d be ridiculed next to big stars like Bea and Betty. Of course, Sophia ended up stealing the show every night.
45. Meanwhile, Susan Harris actually wrote the part of Dorothy with Bea Arthur in mind, but the network wasn’t convinced she’d have widespread appeal. Once she signed on, they quickly ate their words. Still, Bea had concerns about two other casting choices.
46. Rue McClanahan (Blanche) and Betty White (Rose) were originally cast in each other’s roles as they had played similar characters before. Bea was worried this would make the show feel stale, so on a whim, the producers had them swap parts. Magic was born.
47. When the camera started rolling, it seemed like everything was perfect. And with the chemistry the four leads had on screen, how could it not be? But behind the scenes, it was another story entirely.
Photo by Alice S. Hall
48. Much of the tension stemmed from one woman in particular: Bea. On screen, her character Dorothy was a driving force, berating Blanche for her promiscuity and delivering a fiery “Oh, shut up Rose!” Behind the cameras, she was just as hotheaded.
49. Bea had a notorious hatred for chewing gum and forbade anyone from chewing gum on set! On the set of Empty Nest, she stormed off when one of the stars refused to spit it out. And that wasn’t her only quirk.
50. Bea hated wearing shoes so much that she included a stipulation in her contract that let her walk around set barefoot — so long as she didn’t get injured! Eventually, her eccentric personality put her in conflict with one of her castmates.
51. Betty! The feud between Bea and Betty became infamous in the years after The Golden Girls went off the air. As Bea’s son put it, “It’s fun to hate your neighbors…We all need to have somebody that we can let get under our skin.”
52. And Bea certainly let Betty get under her skin. When Betty won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in 1986, Bea was apparently so furious that she called her a…well, let’s just say it wasn’t a pleasant word. The two also clashed in their styles of acting.
53. “[Betty] was from the Mary Tyler Moore school where everything is a very subtle character moment,” wrote Jim Colucci in his book about the show. “The jokes are more gentle.” Bea’s style was another story completely.
54. A veteran of Broadway, Bea’s acting was more exaggerated. Directors even had a special seat for her at the breakfast table so they could always have a shot on her dramatic facial expressions!
55. Bea’s dedication to her craft also set her apart from her co-stars. While she would spend the time in between takes working on her part, Betty would chat with the audience and make jokes.
56. “She was not that fond of me,” remembered Betty. “She found me a pain in the neck sometimes. It was my positive attitude — and that made Bea mad sometimes.” Still, others saw the feud differently.
57. According to Bea’s son, it wasn’t that she was unkind, just more introverted. “My mother had close relationships with a few close friends,” her son recalled. “She wasn’t a loner. But she really liked sitting around and chilling.”
Photo Credit: Wayne Williams
58. In the end, her son didn’t think people had the right impression of the two. Sure they had their differences, but the two still genuinely liked one another. Bea wouldn’t even go to lunch with Rue unless Betty was invited!
59. Once the show hit six seasons, Bea felt the quality was beginning to fade and decided to leave. The producers begged her to stay for one final season and she obliged, sticking with the show through its season 7 finale.
60. Regardless of their feud, Bea and Betty will always be remembered as Dorothy and Rose, two friends who sometimes butt heads, but always came together at the end and made up over a slice (or two) of cheesecake.