[AUDIO OF I LOVE LUCY THEME MUSIC PLAYS]
On May 6th, 1957, the most-watched television show in the United States came to an end.
Throughout 180 episodes and six seasons, I Love Lucy had forged the template for the modern American sitcom.
Starring the husband-wife team of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as a hapless married couple, the program paved the way for a new era in television production in a country that had long favored the movie theater.
In addition to making Lucy and Desi millionaires and temporarily saving their marriage, I Love Lucy left within Desi Arnaz a hunger to continue revolutionizing the entertainment industry under the banner of Desilu Productions.
In the years preceding, Arnaz popularized the three-camera sitcom set up, conceived the idea to shoot I Love Lucy on high-quality 35mm film instead of primitive and cheap-looking videotape, and would indirectly invent the concept of residuals and re-runs as a result.[AUDIO OF DESILU PLAYHOUSE INTRODUCTION]
Arnaz was determined to prove himself an actor and producer, and sidestep the assumption that he was merely the comedic foil playing second fiddle to Lucy.
Desi Arnaz was a Cuban-American whose tenacious personality had been created in his brief, but opulent upbringing in Cuba. The son of a Santiago mayor and the grandson of an executive at Bacardi Rum, But Desi’s gilded childhood wasn’t to last.
The son of a Santiago mayor and the grandson of an executive at Bacardi Rum, Desi’s family became political refugees following the Cuban Revolution of 1933. Their home was burned, his father was briefly imprisoned, and the family later fled Miami. Arnaz went from living on a palatial estate to cleaning birdcages in Miami in just a few months. Over several years, Arnaz learned English and cultivated his performing chops with a touring band and eventually auditioned for a Broadway Musical, which was later turned into a motion picture when Arnaz was 23 years old. And that motion picture starred Lucille Ball.
Their fierce and passionate romance began almost immediately, laying the groundwork for the eventual rise of I Love Lucy and television history would be made.
This is Tom Gilbert, a journalist and author of Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
GILBERT: Inanetly, Desi had excellent taste. He was used to having refined things in his life and I think that translated to when he became a producer. He was very good with talent and he appreciated talent and I think he wanted to be associated with the top of Hollywood and I also think that he didn’t want to be pigeonholed into comedy. You know he was also battling stereotypes about Latinos and he definitely wanted to gain the respect that highbrow drama would bring to him and that’s what I think drove him.
In the film industry, Hollywood studios like Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, and MGM dominated the film production world and television was largely seen as the lesser medium. Thanks largely to the ongoing production of I Love Lucy, Desilu Productions had emerged as one of the few – and the second largest – independent production companies in the country.
After I Love Lucy, Arnaz was ready to kick things into high gear. To keep pace with Hollywood, Desi’s first move was to buy recently bankrupted RKO Studios…
GILBERT: When Desilu sold the rights of the I Love Lucy show to CBS, they had some extra money and they immediately put it into buying RKO studios. They needed to make money. They took a huge gamble on buying this huge – it was three lots, the Gower lot, the Cahuenga lot and the Culver City lot. It was a lot of soundstage space so they had to get those stages working.[AUDIO OF WESTINGHOUSE DESILU PLAYHOUSE HELICOPTER TOUR OF DESILU STUDIOS]
GILBERT: The first order of business was to get rental people in their to pay rent to use the stages while they tried to develop other shows.
Owning 33 sound-stages greatly expanded Desilu’s production capabilities, but it didn’t guarantee success. Arnaz needed intellectual properties, shows, a series. He needed a hook.
To understand how disruptive Desilu was to become, it can be viewed as the Netflix of its day — an upstart production entity that made its money initially from existing properties — but to grow, Desilu, like Netflix, needed to create its own films and television shows to become a competitive force. And Desi wanted to give the competition a run for its money.
To do this, Desilu created the Desilu Playhouse. Sponsored by Westinghouse, the Playhouse focused largely on the occasional continuation of the antics of I Love Lucy antics with Arnaz and Lucy, but was also meant to launch serious dramatic stories, as well, telling a new story each week.
The variety format was on its way out, but Desi, ever the producer, knew good material when he saw it. His first win was a science fiction fantasy script that had been shelved in the vault at CBS named The Time Element. Its writer had been penning screenplays for years, but unable to get his unique brand of drama off the ground. The writer? Rod Serling.[AUDIO OF THE TIME ELEMENT INTRODUCTION]
The Time Element, about a man, stuck in a dream where he’s trying to warn about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor, struck a nerve – and became one of the most highly rated episodes of the Playhouse. CBS received over 60,000 letters of praise. Thanks to Desi Arnaz, Rod Serling would finally get the chance to turn his own brand of storytelling into a series. The series? You’ve probably heard of it.[AUDIO OF THE TWILIGHT ZONE INTRODUCTION]
Six shows into the first season of the Playhouse, Desi could only briefly breathe a sigh of relief. But The Playhouse was struggling for three reasons. It’s intended purposes, to launch new television shows that Desilu could produce, failed more often than not to welcome enough guest stars and capture enough prolonged audience interest. And after years of conflict behind-the-scenes, Lucy and Desi’s marriage was on its last legs too.
As the second season of the Playhouse approached, Desi needed another hit – badly.
Eleven days after I Love Lucy wrapped in 1957, an obscure printing company executive named Eliot Ness died in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. Ness had been recently working with sportswriter Oscar Fraley on an autobiographical account of his career as a Treasury agent in Chicago during Prohibition and his efforts to harass the criminal empire of gangster Al Capone. Ness had been approving the final drafts when he collapsed from a heart attack in his kitchen. The book was called The Untouchables.
Later that same year, The Untouchables was published and picked up as an option by Warner Brothers producer Ray Stark. There was some interest at Warner Brothers in being able to turn their large libray of gangster drama stock footage into a television show, but the option languished.
A year later, while attempting to drown his fears and occupy his mind on vacation near the Del Mar race track outside San Diego, Desi Arnaz, received a summary of The Untouchables from Desilu Story editor Lois Green. The material immediately resonated with the desperate Arnaz. Bells began ringing…
After snapping up Warner Brother’s lapsed option, the first challenge in bringing to life the story of Eliot Ness and Al Capone was that Desi Arnaz had gone to school with Capone’s son. Hoping that the shelf life of Ness’ book would be short-lived, the Capone family had their first taste of Hollywood in the release of a Rod Steiger film called Al Capone.
The idea that the Capone name would be plastered over movie houses and now on television was not warmly received. Arnaz attempted to appeal to the younger, saying he would handle his father’s memory with restraint, but the phone call between them ended disastrously.[AUDIO OF AL CAPONE THEATRICAL TRAILER]
Nevertheless, Arnaz knew he had a unique opportunity and threw himself into production. With variety shows like the Desilu Playhouse falling fast out of favor among television audiences, Arnaz needed The Untouchables to be big.
To convince Desilu’s board room to fund the project, Arnaz pitched the film as not only a Playhouse production and a potential series, but as a theatrical B-movie that could warrant further return-on-investment in the future.
With $400,000 budgeted for the period-drama, Aranz gathered his creative forces: Paul Monash, a television screenwriter, Quinn Martin, husband to I Love Lucy writer Madelyn Pugh and an occasional producer for the Playhouse, and director Phil Karlson. Karlson, who had witnessed a gangland assaasination attempt and helped police locate a brewery in Chicago in his childhood, had already carved out a name as “toughest director in film noir.”
Desi pushed Monash to make the script more potent, powerful enough to knock the couches out from under sedated audiences potatoes who had been lulled into a semi-comatose state by otherwise endless, uninspired fare. To Arnaz, this was no ordinary a cops-and-robbers story. If Desilu’s struggling television empire was going to compete with Hollywood, it had to come on like gangbusters.
Martin wasn’t won over by the original script but agreed to produce after further persuasion from Arnaz, who positioned the Untouchables as a springboard for the 37-year-old’s career. Martin eventually agreed, and decided if it was to be the smash hit that Desi intended, he would throw is creative weight behind it too.
Throughout Culver City and greater Los Angeles, the wheels of the Desilu machine began to turn. Lynn Stalmaster Listr casting poured over headshots to populate the story with characteristic faces. Transportation chief Aaron Dom went about the period correct vehicle. Karlson tapped his own reserves, and brought on Neville Brand as Al Capone, who had stared in the 1952 film Kansas City Confidential. In short order, Brand was dispatched to Italian Accent School, where he spent more time getting his dialect coach drunk than he rehearsed his Italian. Without an audition, actress Patricia Crowley would be cast as Eliot Ness’ wife, Betty Anderson.
But the script was still an issue for the creative trio. An element that could tie together the proceedings and hammer home its real-life gravitas. What the script needed, was a narrator.[AUDIO OF WALTER WINCHELL BROADCAST]
Despite having one foot on the accelerator toward obscurity, Walter Winchell was brought on to add an air of authenticity to the proceedings.
As with Capone, Desilu had a history with Winchell, too. In years previous, Walter has insinuated that a certain red-headed television star was indeed, a red-handed communist. The glaring spotlight of the Red Craze had reached a fever pitch in Hollywood, and the accusation was not taken lightly. Winchell forced Lucy to publicly admit she was not a communist.
Lucy protested, but Desi knew Winchell had been the voice of Depression-era America, and after a Desilu produced television how starring Winchell faltered in 1957, Arnaz snapped up the washed-up journalist for his final hurrah.
The genetic material for television’s first made-for-tv movie — and in effect, its first docu-drama, were being gathered. But The Untouchables still lacked a critical component: an actor to play the lead role of Eliot Ness.
In typical Hollywood fashion, negotiations for the lead role were complicated from the start.
Desi originally pitched well-known actor Van Heflin, much to the dismay of Karlson and Monash. Despite Oscar-winning experience portrayed grizzled characters, Van Heflin didn’t feel he was up for it, and as production was delayed, he left the project.
Seeming to work in alphabetical order, Desi pivoted next to actor Van Johnson. Van Johnson’s wife and manager knew the clock was ticking and insisted he be paid $10,000 for the pleasure, but Desi, sourced by the extortion attempt, passed. Desi briefly considered playing the role himself.
It was Friday, February 22nd, 1959 and Capone was set to take over Chicago the first thing Monday.
Growing desperate, Desi ran through name actors of the day that he felt could meet the material: Cliff Robertson, Jack Lord. And Robert Stack.
Having been John Wayne’s co-star in 1954’s The High and the Mighty, and recently nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Written on the Wind, something about Stack stuck.
Arnaz immediately tracked down Stack and his wife Rosemarie on a date and begged him over a restaurant telephone to consider the role. Arnaz had the script immediately sent to Stack’s home, but Stack wasn’t impressed. It was television, and he was a film actor and Stack was still sensitive over the loss of his Oscar after years of toiling in B-Movie fare. His previous experience in television had been limited at best and the last pilot he had performed in was so bad that Stack purchased the prints to guarantee that they’d never see the light of day.
Arnaz presented on and sweetened the deal – $10,000 up front, $7,500 if the show went to series and 15% of Desilu stock. Stack still said no, but called his agent to share the bewildering experience and how it sounded like a ridiculous proposition. Shiffrin fell in love. Stack finally relented and said he would take the role just to prove just how dumb he thought the whole idea was.
There was no contract signed — Arnaz was betting the future of Desilu on a handshake. And far as the world was concerned, when Stack arrived on set Monday morning it would be 1929. What the hell.
When Stack appeared at Desilu’s Gower studios, the wardrobe department presented a suit tailored to Van Johnson. Despite the ill-fitting suit, Stack grew at ease and found his character in rehearsals as the day wore on.
Stack already knew how to handle a gun, but had little time to consider how to approach the character.
As the script continued to undergo last-minute rewrites, Stack settled for simplicity. He would underplay the character with a strange, often silent, piercing presence. In a script full of violent and colorful gangsters, Ness would be man of few words, totally in control of himself.
And just beneath the surface, near periscope depth, would swim a composite of the three bravest men Stack had ever known: a stuntman named William Carey Loftin, who would later be called the “Muhammed Ali” of stuntmen for his work on Duel, the French Connection and Bullitt; former Navy roommate Buck Mazza, who was one of the Navy’s most decorated aviators; and Audie Murphy, who had become the most decorated soldier in World War II. Here’s Robert Stack, describing an experience with Audie Murphy that would simmer behind the portrayal of the man who took on Al Capone’s criminal empire.
STACK: A short story about Audie, for instance, we were in Japan once – remember he’s a little bitty guy, he won the Congressional Medal of Honor and is the most decorated soldier in the history of the Army. This big drunk came in and was throwing his weight around. And Audie just looked at him and said “get out.” And the drunk just looked at him, and he could see about 22 dead Germans behind the eyes. And the weird thing is, he just turned around and went out. And that was what I tried to bring, a measure of the fact that this was a counter-puncher that if there was a threat behind him, he was a very courgeous…they all had something in common, they never talked about what they did, they just plain did.
Sometime that afternoon, Eliot Ness was born.
And with his help, Desi Arnaz was about to set off a chain of events that would rattle the countryside and change television history, again.
On our next episode, The Untouchables becomes a smash hit for Desilu – and the stage is set for a new series that will win awards and acclaim – and become America’s first televised culture shock.