By Susan Schindehette
February 18, 1991 12:00 PM

Years later it would seem ironic that they met, in 1940, on the RKO set of a picture called Too Many Girls. She was a 28-year-old contract player with a string of forgettable films, he, at 23, a dashing, Cuban-horn nightclub bandleader. They married six months later. While she tended a soaring Hollywood career, he toured the country with his rumba band. In time, as depicted in this week’s CBS TV movie Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter (Feb. 10), the relationship between Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz began to fray with the strain of separation.

By 1950 Lucy was starring on radio with actor Richard Denning in the popular CBS show My Favorite Husband. When the network launched a version of the show for the new medium of television, she insisted that Desi be cast as her spouse. The formula was magic. In its six-year run, I Love Lucy, making perfect use of Ball’s vibrant talent and Desi’s behind-the-scenes business savvy, would become the most successful comedy series on TV and earn millions for the couple’s production company, Desilu. Each week 40 million viewers watched the onscreen antics of the Ricardo family. But off-screen, the Arnaz marriage, which produced two children before ending in a 1960 divorce, was a volatile interplay of alcoholism, infidelity—and a surpassing love that endured for nearly 50 years.

William Asher, I Love Lucy director:

Before the show began [in 1951] they had already been separated. An actress and a bandleader. He was on the road; she was a working professional. That’s the kind of marriage that has failure written all over it. You’re separated a while, and before you know it. those giblets begin to jump.

Bob Weiskopf, who with partner Bob Schiller was a longtime writer for Ball and Arnaz:

At the time the consensus was, “What the hell do we want with a Latin bandleader who can’t speak English?” But she wanted him because she knew that if he went on the road with the band, he’d be catting around all the time. She wanted him at home, where she felt the marriage would have a better chance of lasting, which of course it did.

Charles Pomerantz, Lucy’s longtime publicist:

Before they did the series, he was a bandleader coming home at 3 or 4 in the morning. And by then she was up and on her way to makeup at RKO. She used to say, “We just can’t keep meeting in the Sepulveda tunnel.” And her strategy must’ve worked, because she got pregnant right away. She said she finally had him where she wanted him… for a couple of days.

Lillian Briggs Winograd, one of Lucy’s closest friends:

Lucy had two or three miscarriages before she gave birth to little Lucie |on July 17, 1951. three months before the show’s debut). She thought that having a baby would hold them together.

Bart Andrews, author of three books on the couple and their work:

Some of Desi’s womanizing was alleviated from the moment little Lucie was born. I think he felt more sensitive about those things and stopped some of that. For a while, at least.

William Asher: When they were having the baby and we did the show about the birth of Little Ricky [which coincided with the birth of their second child, Desi Jr., on Jan. 19, 1953], Desi was terribly emotional about her. He really was crazy about her. You could feel how they felt.

Madelyn Pugh Davis, who along with Bob Carroll made up Lucy’s longest-running comedy-writing team:

Desi was a charmer. We used to call him the Cuban Arm because he’d put his arm around you and say, “Listen, amigo…” And you were done for.

Phyllis McGuire, the singer, who met Lucy in the early 1950s:

I could see what she saw in him. He was flashy, lovable, absolutely charming. And that accent…

June Allyson, who with her husband, Dick Powell, was a friend of the couple’s:

Lucy was very bright, but Desi was the brains. He was the staunch one. He ran the whole thing. Lucy just deferred to him.

William Luce, coscreenwriter for Lucy & Desi:

Before the Laughter: When they were beginning I Love Lucy, Desi bargained for ownership of those 179 episodes, so they could show them to their children. There was no concept of reruns in those days. A few years later Desi sold them all back to CBS for millions.

Madelyn Pugh Davis: One time [in 1957] he was off the set doing something, and Lucy says, “I suppose he’s buying RKO.” Which he was.

Bob Weiskopf: Once, on the set, Lucy tripped on a cable. She didn’t fall, just sort of stumbled. He grabbed us, “Jeez, amigos, anything happens to her, and we’re all in the shrimp business.”

Madelyn Pugh Davis: He always knew she was the star. Never in all those years did I ever hear him say, “Where’s my part?” He just thought she was it, and if she was taken care of, that was all that counted. He protected her. People were always asking her to do commercials and things, and he’d say, “No, she doesn’t do that.”

Bob Weiskopf: There were never any knock-down-drag-out fights around the set. Desi was from an upper-crust sort of society in Cuba. He was too well-mannered. He’d be the last person in the world to drag out the dirty linen in front of anybody.

Keith Thibodeaux, who played Little Ricky on the I Love Lucy show:

[At their home] there was always tension. One time Desi Jr. and I were playing in the backyard, and they were in the guest house. We heard a lot of loud arguing and cursing and glass shattering and screaming, and we were scared. Desi Jr. turned to me and said, “There they go again.” I was about 9,10 years old.

Madelyn Pugh Davis: They had one fight, and I remember we thought, “There goes the series.” By the time we were all hearing about it, they’d already made up. That’s the way they were.

Bob Weiskopf: There were a lot of occasions when Lucy insulted Desi—usually indirectly. She’d mention to someone else, Vivian [Vance, who played Ethel Mertz], for example, what had happened in a poker game over the weekend in Palm Springs. In front of him, she’d talk about what stupid plays he had made. I thought, “Jesus Christ, this guy’s a saint.” I would have punched her in the nose.

Keith Thibodeaux: They had separate bedrooms in Beverly Hills at one point. Once, at their home in Palm Springs, she told her chauffeur to drive her down to the Indian Wells Country Club. She asked my father [a family friend] to go along with her. She went to the lounge to have a drink, and Desi walked in with a couple of women on his arm. When he saw Lucy at the bar, he turned around and took off.

Charles Pomerantz: The magazine Confidential came out with a story saying Desi was a womanizer. I gave an advance copy to Desi, and Lucy said, “I want to read this story.” It was during a rehearsal day, and she went into her dressing room. Everybody was frozen on the set. She finally came out, tossed the magazine to Desi and said, “Oh, hell, I could tell them worse than that.”

Bob Weiskopf: He was never drunk on the set. But he did always think in terms of liquor. We once worked very late, and I started to look at my watch. Desi says, “Jesus, I’m sorry, amigos. Who’d like something to drink?” No thought as to whether anyone might like a sandwich. Just, “My God! Going all this time without a cocktail!”

Jim Bacon, veteran Hollywood reporter for the Associated Press: The big problem with their marriage was that when Desi would get drunk, he was wild. If he was out carousing, he wouldn’t call in one whore, he’d call in 18. One night when I was with him in Palm Springs, he didn’t do anything but sit on the floor naked and sing “Babaloo” with all these whores around.

Bob Weiskopf: Basically, Desi’s attitude was, “What the hell’s the matter? I love her. When I go out with women, they’re usually hookers. Those don’t count.”

Shelley Winters, a longtime friend: They had a house in Palm Springs where he used to go and just stay and drink. I think he just wanted Lucy to think he was off being unfaithful, just to make her miserable. He just couldn’t take that she was so much more important than he was. Nobody ever called her Mrs. Arnaz.

Jim Bacon: Lucy put up with it quite a bit, but then it just became too embarrassing. Especially when he got arrested on Hollywood Boulevard. That was sometime in the ’50s. The cops picked him up, drunk, standing in front of this whorehouse, singing Cuban songs.

Bart Andrews: She told me that by 1956 it wasn’t even a marriage anymore. They were just going through a routine for the children. She told me that for the last five years of their marriage, it was “just booze and broads.” That was in her divorce papers, as a matter of fact.

Lillian Briggs Winograd: Desi was the love of Lucy’s life. It was romantic, passionate, everything you could imagine in a love affair, and she was deeply hurt by what happened. They had tried like three times to get a divorce, but Lucy had always stopped it. Finally she planned to move to Switzerland, take her kids and get out of Hollywood. At the time, in 1960, she had one final commitment to do Wildcat on Broadway.

Shelley Winters: I saw her [postdivorce] in Wildcat when she met Gary Morton [the nightclub comic she married in 1961]. She realized she needed someone who wouldn’t be clobbered too much by her success and who would take care of her.

Jack Carter, the comedian who introduced Ball to Gary Morton: When Jimmy Durante died I in 1980], his widow, Margie, asked Desi to help with the funeral. They were old friends from the Del Mar racetrack days. Desi was so out of it that he kept inviting people, who were dead. He kept calling up that old racetrack crowd, and they were all gone. He was thinking of people from 30 years ago when they were kids. At the funeral Desi stood in the back, stammering. He didn’t know where he was. He was even bombed that day.

William Asher: I think she always loved him. And there’s no question that he loved her always. Later, he married her double. Edie [Mack Hirsch] was a marvelous girl in her own right, but she sure as hell looked like Lucy.

Lillian Briggs Winograd: People in Hollywood knew of Desi’s philandering and drinking, but she always wanted to keep it private and never hurt him, even in the later years when she was so big and he was really down and out. She always hated what was written about them, so I would say, “Lucy, why don’t vow write a book?” She’d say, “No, it’s nobody’s business.”

Jim Bacon: Even after she’d married Gary, whenever she’d see me, she would always take me over to a corner and say, “Have you heard from Desi lately?” She wanted to know how he was getting along. There was always that great, great love there.

Jack Carter: Desi and Gary got along fine. Desi wasn’t really that concerned with him. It was like he didn’t exist. He’d ask Lucy, “How’s that guy?”

Lillian Briggs Winograd: I don’t want to take anything away from her relationship with Gary. He made her extremely happy during the last 25 years of her life. But it was a different kind of happiness.

Jack Carter: Lucy loved Desi till the day she died [following heart surgery on April 26, 1989]. He was the father of her kids. Even after she married Gary, she’d still run these lovely home movies of her and Desi and the kids when they were little. Everybody was in them, smiling by the pool, running up real fast, waving hello, Lucy walking knock-kneed and doing her Lucy faces. She’d sit there giving commentaries. She loved watching those movies.

Lillian Briggs Winograd: At the end, we drove down to Del Mar, where she went to see Desi a few days before he died [of lung cancer on Dec. 2, 1986]. She was very, very shook-up. She left that place and broke down and said, “That was the one love…”

William Asher: Maybe I’m the romantic, but there was a great, great love there, there really was. Desi was very unhappy about the breakup, and I think she was too. I don’t think either one of them ever got over it.

Things happen. It was very sad. But they’re together now.

—Susan Schindehette, Andrew Abrahams, Leah Feldon-Mitchell and Marie Moneysmith in Los Angeles