Arnaz, Desi, 1917-1986

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1917-03-02
Death 1986-12-02
Cubans

Biographical notes:

Biographical Information:

From the mid 1930s until the early 1970s, Desi Arnaz, born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz de Archa III on March 2, 1917, achieved prominence first as a musician and later in film and television. After leaving Cuba in 1933 due to the arrival of the Batista government, Desi and his mother fled to Miami, Florida, where his father later joined them. Desi Arnaz joined Xaiver Cugat’s band in 1934 and toured with the group before striking out on his own. Earning renown as the “Miami Rhumba King,” the musician and eventual bandleader went north to perform in New York nightclubs. In 1939 he starred in the Broadway production of “Too Many Girls.” When RKO Pictures in Hollywood purchased the play in 1940, Arnaz made his motion picture debut in the film version. He reprised his role as the lead character, playing opposite Lucille Ball (1911-1989). Their meeting began a relationship that led to their marriage later that year. The couple purchased property in the Chatsworth area of the San Fernando Valley, which they named the Desilu Ranch.

With the advent of World War II, Arnaz entertained the troops with his band, and he enlisted in the US Army in 1943, serving until 1945. Between 1945 and 1951, Arnaz worked in radio and film and also performed in clubs as a bandleader. During this period he and Lucille sought projects in which they could perform in together. Ball, then starring in a radio program called “My Favorite Husband,” was approached by CBS, which was interested in moving the radio show to the newly developed medium of television. Formed initially to manage Arnaz’s band, Desilu Productions was expanded to become the banner under which the couple produced their first hit in the new medium. Lucille Ball negotiated a deal with CBS allowing her and Arnaz to play the fictitious husband and wife team of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo in their new TV show, “I Love Lucy.”

Running from 1951 until 1956, “I Love Lucy” was only one show on the roster of Desilu Productions. With the purchase of RKO studios in 1956, Arnaz expanded the company’s facilities to allow for increased production. Between 1951 until 1962, Desilu produced such shows as “Our Miss Brooks” (a vehicle starring Eve Arden who later started in “The Mothers-In-Law”). Other notable productions included “The Untouchables,” “Guestward Ho,” and “The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse.” The couple divorced in 1960 and Ball bought Arnaz out in 1962; afterwards, Ball assumed complete control of the production company. Desi chose semi-retirement and pursued his interests in breeding and raising racehorses, splitting his time between his two homes in Baja California, Mexico, and Del Mar, California. In 1963, he married Edith Mack, a union that lasted until her death in 1983.

Signaling a return to television, Arnaz formed “Desi Arnaz Productions Incorporated” (DAPI) in 1965 as his new production entity. With the development of “The Mothers-In-Law” (MIL) in 1966, and its subsequent appearance in prime time during the 1967 season, Arnaz assumed the role of the show’s director and also appeared in four of the episodes as Señor Raphael Del Gado. In production from 1967 until 1969, “The Mothers-In-Law,” starring Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard, ran for three seasons on NBC.

As it turns out, his guest roles on “The Mothers-in-Law” were Desi's last sitcom work until his appearance twenty years later on “Alice” in 1978. His only other major television appearances after the “Lucy” shows were on episodes of “The Men from Shiloh,” “Bonanza,” a pilot that ran as part of the “Perry Mason” series, a pilot that ran as an episode of another Raymond Burr series, "Ironside" (Dr. Domingo), as guest-host on “Saturday Night Live” in 1975, and on a Bob Hope special in 1976.

The 1970s marked a second retreat from television production, but Arnaz stayed busy nonetheless. In 1971, a San Diego State University graduate student named Jim Yanizyn, who was writing his M.A. thesis on “The Mothers-In-Law,” contacted Arnaz. This contact led to Arnaz’s decision to donate the initial materials related to “The Mothers-In-Law” to San Diego State University, and a reception was held in the summer of 1971. Retuning to SDSU in 1972 as a visiting professor, Arnaz taught classes in studio production and acting for television. He also served as the United States ambassador to Latin America under Richard Nixon. Arnaz’s autobiography, A Book, was published in 1976, and it spent a number of weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Desi Arnaz completed his last film, “The Escape Artist,” in 1983 and died from cancer on December 2, 1986 at the age of 69.

From the guide to the Desi Arnaz Papers, 1947-1976, 1966-1974, (Special Collections & University Archives)

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Subjects:

  • Entertainers--California, Southern--Biography
  • Television programs--Plots, themes, etc
  • Television comedies

Occupations:

  • Performer

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