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Being Ricky Ricardo: Why Desi Arnaz matters

January 4, 2022, 12:02 PM UTC
Desi Arnaz with the many awards won by himself, his wife, Lucille Ball, and their hit comedy show “I Love Lucy,” circa 1955. Even after their separation, he credited Ball for most of their success.
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With the release of Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos, starring Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, two of television history’s most beloved and recognizable figures have been reintroduced to both our culture and consciousness.

Though I Love Lucy debuted on CBS seventy years ago this year, they’ve never really left our screens as reruns of the iconic sitcom continue to air on cable and streaming platforms. Over the decades, Ball’s career, image, and “small-town girl rises to stardom” story has kept her legacy intact as she continues to win over new fans and generations of admirers—and rightfully so.

But what about her costar and first husband, Desi Arnaz? We seem to remember him only as Lucy’s Cuban counterpart: the conga player with the silly, often-mocked accent who, in real life, cheated and drank too much, which subsequently led to the couple’s divorce in 1960. We disregard him as a joke and a relic of the mid-century Latin dance craze, satirized in films like The Mask, starring Jim Carrey. However, Arnaz was anything but a punch line.

Why isn’t Arnaz as revered as other 20th-century media innovators like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, Warner Brothers’ Jack Warner, Ted Turner, and CBS’s William S. Paley? We tend to glance over his life story and only focus on his character flaws, but is he any less imperfect or as innovative as other men we choose to immortalize? In fact, his journey is perhaps more aligned with the American experience than that of any other figure.

Desi was born into a well-to-do family in Santiago de Cuba, with deep roots in Cuba’s political arena, as well as in business. As a result of the Cuban Revolution of 1933, his father was imprisoned, and Desi and his mother found themselves homeless before fleeing to Miami in search of asylum. Between attending high school and working low-paying jobs, including cleaning canary cages at Woolworths department stores, Desi developed the desire to become a musician and started making noise with his band in Miami before being discovered by bandleader Xavier Cugat, who invited him to join his orchestra.

It wasn’t long before Desi’s ambitions, good looks, and charm propelled him to create his own orchestra, originate the conga line craze in the U.S., and attract the attention of Rodgers and Hart, who cast him in the Broadway play Too Many Girls. Thanks to its success, RKO Pictures decided to adapt the theater production into a motion picture, bringing Desi along as its budding star. Once in Hollywood, he and costar Lucille Ball met for the first time. Although both were in relationships, a romance quickly ensued, and the two soon eloped in 1940.

In the following decade, Desi served two years in the United States Army, leading the USO programs. Eventually discharged as a staff sergeant, he received three medals for his service: the Army Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, and WWII Victory Medal. As both of their movie careers started to dry up by the mid-’40s, Lucille turned to radio, while Desi went back out on the road with a new orchestra.

When her radio program My Favorite Husband became a hit for CBS, the opportunity to develop it for TV (a new medium) was risky, but Ball saw it as a chance to hire her husband in order to keep him off the road and away from all of its temptations and vices. The network first refused the idea of a white woman married to a Cuban immigrant, assuming Americans wouldn’t buy the concept of an interracial married couple. Using her influence, along with testing the show’s premise in front of live audiences at local theaters, she managed to convince executives that Desi was the man for the role.

With only months to develop the newly titled I Love Lucy, neither Ball nor Arnaz knew a thing about making television, which was still in its infancy. However, after the couple founded Desilu Productions in 1950, Desi enthusiastically took the reins of the operations and boldly made decisions that would shape the industry for years to come, including hiring Academy Award–winning cinematographer Karl Freund and developing the groundbreaking three-camera setup for sitcoms. In order to produce the best quality, Desi also asked to shoot with the costlier 35mm film rather than grainy kinescope technology. In order to achieve these production feats, he and Lucille willingly took a pay cut in exchange for owning the show’s masters outright after they aired. Without fully realizing it at the time, Desi would be responsible for the lucrative and long-lasting concept of syndication—the reason we still watch I Love Lucy today.

Thanks to the show’s success, the couple became America’s biggest sensation, purchasing RKO Studios, folding them into Desilu, and producing some of television’s most iconic series over the next decade, including The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek. Desi also gave new actors and writers a chance to develop their talent through the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, where Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone was born. Although their marriage privately fell apart because of Desi’s alcoholism and philandering, the two never stopped loving each other. Arnaz eventually allowed Ball to buy him out of Desilu, and he continued to give most, if not all, of the credit for their success to his former wife till the day he died, on Dec. 2, 1986. Even in his 1976 memoir, A Book, his own life story ends in 1960, after The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour wrapped, as did his marriage to Ball.

Desi never gave himself the credit he deserved. For a Hispanic immigrant navigating the mostly white world of Hollywood and American business at large, he downplayed his own significance in order to let others shine. His humility, gratitude, and faith in others helped him transform an industry. Perhaps we need more leaders like Desi Arnaz.

Raj Tawney writes about race, culture, and history from his multiracial American perspective.

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