05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
She was the Mount St. Helens of (comedy, a disaster-prone doozy who regularly flipped her lid. Who can forget when she baked bread—and added enough yeast to raise the Titanic. KABLOOIE! A loaf the size of Portugal exploded out of the oven, rammed her across the kitchen floor and pinned her against the sink—WAAAAAAAA! And then there was the time Lucy and Ethel Mertz, her nitwit landlady, tried to install a shower. Lucy turned it on full blast, then discovered in pop-eyed terror that she couldn't turn it off—and couldn't get out of a shower stall that rapidly filled with whooshing water while the dippy duo screeched and floundered like overdressed tadpoles in a highball glass.
That was Lucy: slapstick Garbo, female clown of the century, by every standard the First Lady of Television. Her first series, I Love Lucy, may never be surpassed as TV's most popular sitcom. In 1952 the show captured 67 of every 100 households at 9 o'clock on Monday night and for four of its six years (1951-57) on the air ranked No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings. Its successors, The Lucy Show (1962-68) and Here's Lucy (1968-74), ran for nine seasons in the Top 10. And for 32 years reruns of I Love Lucy have dominated the worldwide syndication market. As one fan said, "Every minute of the day, somewhere, someone is watching I Love Lucy."
Viewers adored Lucy. We loved her Raggedy Ann looks: the big, red, bow-tie mouth, the baby-blue, sunny-side-up eyes, the ha-ha hairdo that topped her off like a giant orange dandelion. We loved her raucous guffaw that whacked the ear like a seal's bark and her gully-low voice that rasped like roller skates on rough cement. We loved her squeaking panic when she realized she had attached her party beard with ever-grip glue. We loved her greedy glee when she got pregnant and ordered pistachio ice cream slathered with hot fudge and—sardines. Above all, we loved her for being her all-too-human, indefatigably silly self: a Don Quixote in pin curls tilting hopelessly but hilariously at the male establishment, a beguiling caricature of all those wistful hausfraus of the '50s who dreamed of conquering the great big world out there but wound up bitchin' in the kitchen.
Caught up in the illusion, most of us assumed that Lucy and Lucille were the same endearing dizzard. Wrong. Lucille was an obsessive careerist who believed you can't make an omelet without breaking egos. On the set she deferred to no one, not even husband and co-star Desi Arnaz. She demanded star prerogatives, monopolized close-ups and extracted speckless perfection from a frazzled cast and crew. "I'd tell you to go——yourself," Vivian Vance (who played Ethel) once snapped at her, "if Desi hadn't already taken care of that."
Lucille played Big Boss at home too. Like her good friend Joan Crawford, she overmanaged Lucie and Desi Jr. And like Joan, she was a compulsive Mrs. Clean. Her idea of fun was to lint-pick and dust-bust, and when she traveled by plane, she meticulously tidied all the lavatory cubicles. She was also something of a prude, but her blowtorch temper at times incinerated her principles: When a male interviewer stared at her upper story, she angrily ripped the falsies out of her bra and waggled them in his face.
Harsh influences shaped her nature. Her father, a telephone lineman, died when she was 4, and when her mother remarried, Lucille was left with in-laws. To keep track of her, they locked the kid into a dog collar and leashed her to an overhead wire in the backyard. Lonely and scared, she invented an imaginary friend named Sassafrassa who assured her that someday she would be a movie star. The fantasy took hold, and at 15 Lucille boldly set foot on a potholed path to glory. Great gams and a willowy figure got her a job modeling, but at 17, she was paralyzed from the waist down by rheumatic fever and spent two years learning to walk again. At 22, she lucked into a bit part in a movie musical. Frantic for fame, she dyed her hair the color of boiled shrimp and snuggled off-camera with Henry Fonda. But in 1950, at 39, she was staring at the tag-end of a drab career as "Queen of the B's" and at the debris of a wrecked marriage. Desi was continually on the road with his rumba band—and on the prowl for a fresh hot tamale. To save the marriage and her career, they decided to do a TV sitcom together.
Forget it, said CBS's brass. Viewers won't accept a Latin leading man. But Desi made a pilot, sold the show to Philip Morris and literally forced CBS to air it. What's more, in an era when TV shows were preserved on blurry kinescopes, he shot I Love Lucy on film and reserved all rights to Desilu. In effect, he invented a huge source of profit: the rerun. He also helped devise the studio techniques that have shaped the modern sitcom: Using three cameras, he filmed the show in segments before live audiences. By 1959, building on Lucy's success, he had made Desilu into a corporate giant that in time generated a score of powerhouse series (Star Trek and The Untouchables among them). After the king and queen of television divorced in 1960, Lucille bought out Desi and for the next seven years was sole owner of the world's largest production facility.
Being rich and famous hasn't always been fun. Desi died of cancer in 1986, and in his teens Desi Jr. got messed up by drugs. But daughter Lucie has done well on the stage (They're Playing Our Song) and in the movies, and Lucille has enjoyed a solid, 27-year second marriage to comic Gary Morton. Last year she had a heart attack and at 77 has abandoned hope for a last hurrah. "I had a sensational 25 years," she said recently. "I won't try to top that. It's nice to have entertained five generations." All those generations agree. Thank you, Sassafrassa.