By Chuck Ross
Madelyn Pugh Davis, who co-created one of the most popular shows in the history of television, "I Love Lucy"–and who co-wrote all 180 episodes of the series–has died after a brief illness at age 90, according to a number of media reports.
Her importance to the success of "I Love Lucy" cannot be
underoverestimated says our good friend Tom Gilbert. Gilbert was the Executive Editor of this publication until earlier this year, when he went to the News Corp’s "Daily."
"Madelyn made an essential contribution to the success of ‘I Love Lucy,’ Gilbert told us. "Besides professionalism, wit and inventiveness, she brought to the table the sensibilities of a female, and a lady, which she most definitely was. She softened the edges of the Lucy Ricardo character and made her more likable. I feel certain she was the force behind the marvelous interplay between the Lucy and Ethel characters as well."
Ethel was the character played by Vivian Vance.
Gilbert knows of what he speaks. He wrote THE book about "I Love Lucy." Literally. Gilbert is co-author of "Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz," which comes out in a new edition in August.
"I Love Lucy" was based on a radio show Lucille Ball was in called "My Favorite Husband." Davis and her writing partner, Bob Carroll Jr., first hooked up with Ball on that show. On the program Ball’s husband was played by actor Richard Denning.
When CBS expressed an interest in transferring "My Favorite Husband" to TV, Ball said she wanted her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, to play her husband on the show.
CBS wasn’t so crazy about that idea, Gilbert says. So, to prove she and Arnaz could click in a TV version, they took "My Favorite Husband" on the road, to a number of cities, with Arnaz taking the part Denning played on the radio version. It was during this time that Davis and Carroll and Jess Oppenheimer really honed what was to become "I Love Lucy," Gilbert says. The show debuted on CBS on Oct. 15, 1951, and has been playing in syndication ever since.
For the first four years of "I Love Lucy" the show was co-written by Oppenheimer, Davis and Carroll. In 1955, a second writing team signed onto the show, Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf. Of the five, only Schiller is still with us. He’ll be 93 later this year.
Gilbert also noted that "Davis was a big fan of Desi Arnaz, and never passed up an opportunity to praise his contributions to the series and television as a whole."
Not only did Davis and her cohorts write all the dialogue for the show as well as the plot points, they also tried all of the physical shenanigans that they would then ask Ball to do on the show.
According to the New York Times, " ‘Lucy would do anything we suggested,’ Ms. Davis said. Really? ‘The only time she ever said she didn’t want to do something was when she saw an elephant on the set and ran up to her office,’ Ms. Davis recalled. The script called for her to retrieve $500 from under the elephant’s foot.
“ ‘Then the phone rang and it was Vivian Vance,’ Ms. Davis said. ‘Vivian said, ‘It’s O.K., I told Lucy that if she didn’t want to do that funny thing, I’ll do it.’ And Lucy said, ‘O.K., I’ll do it.’ So she talked into the elephant’s trunk and got it to lift its foot.”
Under Gilbert’s direction, TVWeek–then called Electronic Media–did a big salute to "I Love Lucy" on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the show. Gilbert got Davis and Carroll to write a superb piece about the show that was part remembrance, part tribute, exclusively for us. It’s a wonderful read, and you can do so if you click here.
Davis was married twice, first to TV producer Quinn Martin and then to an M.D., Richard Davis.
She is survived by her son, Michael Quinn Martin, and, according to the AP, " by stepchildren, grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Services will be private."