It almost didn’t happen that way. In 1950, when CBS sought to move Lucille Ball’s popular radio program to television, the star insisted on casting her actual husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, as her on-screen spouse. According to James Sheridan, the unofficial “I Love Lucy” scholar-in-residence at the Paley Center for Media in New York, the response by the network amounted to: “Forget it — nobody will believe you’re married to him.”
It undoubtedly helped that Arnaz, a descendant of Spanish nobility, was, to put it directly, a white man — albeit one who would exclaim, “Now, Loosy, take-a-tizzy!” when he was trying to calm his wife. Arnaz’s accent and mispronunciations were more than a running joke in “I Love Lucy”; they were the key to the character of Ricky Ricardo, who believed he was fitting smoothly into American society even as he struggled with its most basic requirement. At moments of high emotion, he would erupt into bursts of rapid-fire Spanish that were usually left untranslated; no line of dialogue could be funnier than the cascade of long vowels and clipped sibilants he poured down on his uncomprehending wife. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the first words of Spanish many Americans heard spoken were by Arnaz (or that the first Spanish words whose meaning they understood were Lucy’s hesitant efforts to wrap her tongue around a word for “thank you” she pronounced “grassy-ass”).