Lucille Ball was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. The red-headed actress is perhaps best known for her role as klutzy, accident-prone Lucy Ricardo from the 1950s hit series I Love Lucy, but the New York native’s long list of accomplishments extends well beyond her talents on screen.
Though she’s remembered as one of the most beloved actresses in Hollywood, Ball came from humble beginnings: Ball was born in 1911 in Jamestown, New York. Her father worked for Bell Telephone, a job that required the family to relocate frequently. He died suddenly in 1915 from typhoid fever, an incident that Ball has often cited as her first memory. After his death, she and her younger brother, Fred, were raised by their grandparents.
As a child, Ball was reserved, but she knew she wanted to try her hand at show business. At age 14, she enrolled in Manhattan’s John Murray Anderson School for Dramatic Arts, where her classmates included some future leading ladies. "I was a tongue-tied teenager spellbound by the school's star pupil, Bette Davis," Ball once said. The school wasn’t so convinced of Ball’s own talents, though; teachers told her mother that Ball was “too shy” to ever be successful. That feedback didn’t stop Ball, however. She went on to explore a number of different paths, including modeling. Fashion designer Hattie Carnegie hired Ball as her in-house model in 1928, and later, as a model for Chesterfield cigarettes. It was Carnegie who suggested that Ball dye her brunette hair blonde — but Ball’s signature bright red hair wouldn’t come until later.
In 1933, Ball moved to Hollywood, determined to pursue acting more seriously. She was able to land a few minor roles, including one as a “Goldwyn Girl” to promote the 1933 film Roman Scandals. One of her bigger roles was a part in 1937’s Stage Door, alongside Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn. She was known somewhat disparagingly (and somewhat fondly) as “The Queen of B Movies” in the 1940s, given the number of second-tier films she was cast in. But among these was one life-changing role: the lead in the musical Too Many Girls. It was on this set that Ball met and fell in love with Desi Arnaz, a Cuban American actor. The couple eloped one year later.
What followed was a whirlwind of good fortune, business acumen, and extreme persistence. Ball was cast as the wife on a hit radio comedy series for CBS Radio, My Favorite Husband, in 1948. Following its success, CBS asked Ball to develop the show for television, and the actress agreed — under one condition: that she be able to cast Arnaz as her husband. CBS execs were skeptical, so Ball and Arnaz took their show on the road, literally. They created a vaudeville act and performed on tour, to the delight of audiences nationwide. CBS extended a contract to the couple, and I Love Lucy was born. The show was an immediate hit, quickly breaking records with 23 million viewers and becoming the most-watched show in America by the following year.
The series premiered in 1951, with Ball and Arnaz at the helm of their newly formed production company, Desilu Productions. The pair made many groundbreaking decisions, including shoot the series on film versus the less expensive kinescope (they took a pay cut to ensure the quality of the aesthetic); locating their sets in Hollywood rather than New York; and filming the show in front of a live studio audience. Desilu Productions went on to produce other hit TV shows, including The Dick Van Dyke Show and Star Trek.
Though the couple’s business partnership was a gold mine, behind the scenes their romantic relationship was faltering, and in 1960, they divorced. Arnaz sold his share of Desilu Productions to Ball, making her the first woman to own a major production studio. The two remained friends and co-parented two children together, Lucie and Desi Jr.
Later in life, Ball continued acting, most notably in two spin-offs of I Love Lucy: The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. When she died in 1989 at the age of 77, she left behind a legacy for generations of actresses and comedians. Here, we’ve rounded up 17 of her most hilarious and inspiring quotes about success, life, and everything in between.
The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.
In life, all good things come hard, but wisdom is the hardest to come by.
One of the things I learned the hard way was that it doesn’t pay to get discouraged. Keeping busy and making optimism a way of life can restore your faith in yourself.
I think knowing what you cannot do is more important than knowing what you can.
Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.
I don’t know how to tell a joke. I never tell jokes. I can tell stories that happened to me… anecdotes. But never a joke.
It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.
I cured myself of shyness when it finally occurred to me that people didn’t think about me half as much as I gave them credit for. The truth was, nobody gave a damn… When I stopped being prisoner to what I worried was others’ opinions of me, I became more confident and free.
A man who correctly guesses a woman’s age may be smart, but he’s not very bright.
Luck? I don’t know anything about luck. I’ve never banked on it and I’m afraid of people who do. Luck to me is something else: hard work — and realizing what is an opportunity and what isn’t.
I’d rather regret the things I have done than the things that I haven’t.
Use a makeup table with everything close at hand and don’t rush; otherwise you’ll look like a patchwork quilt.
Once in his life, every man is entitled to fall madly in love with a gorgeous redhead.
Things said in embarrassment and anger are seldom the truth.
You won't be happy, whatever you do, unless you're comfortable with your own conscience.
Children internalize their parents' unhappiness. Fortunately, they absorb our contentment just as readily.
Life takes guts.
Photo credit: De Carvalho Collection / Contributor/ via Getty Images