This month 29 years ago the Queen of Comedy, Lucille Ball, debuted what would be her fourth and final TV show, ‘Life with Lucy’. The show was a much lauded comeback for Ball who had just come off of a highly successful starring dramatic role in a TV movie. The comeback though, would be short-lived.
In 1985 Lucille Ball won critical acclaim for her role as a homeless woman living on the streets of New York in the made-for-TV movie, ‘Stone Pillow’. The movie showed Ball in a way audiences had never seen her. Gone was her trademark red hair, bright red lipstick, long black lashes and endearing mishaps. In their place was a gray-haired, anything-but glamorous looking, jaded woman, trying to get through life as a homeless woman on the streets of New York. The movie was a ratings boon for ABC and won Ball critical acclaim for the quality of her acting in such a dramatically different role than she had been known for previously.
Less than a year later ‘Life with Lucy’ would premiere, also on ABC, with Ball back in the role everyone knew and loved.
It seemed like a no-brainer. Ball’s previous sitcoms had all been runaway successes, with the comedienne spending 26 consecutive years on television with her previous sitcoms ‘I Love Lucy’, ‘The Lucy Desi Comedy Hour’, ‘The Lucy Show’ and ‘Here’s Lucy’. Also, following the success of ‘Stone Pillow’, Ball had proven that even at 74 years old, she could still command a television audience.
The premise of ‘Life’ saw Ball remaining true to her “Lucy” character while simultaneously evolving her as she had in her previous shows, this time into a grandmother now moving in with her daughter’s family. Note with the last name Barker, this incarnation of “Lucy”, had recently suffered the loss of her husband Sam and taken his half share of a hardware store, co-owned by Ball’s longtime television straight man, Gale Gordon.
‘Life’ started out as a moderate success, as the show premiered at number 23 in the Nielsen television ratings but the critics were harsh. The Washington Post called the show an “embarrassment”. The Associated Press referred to it as “silly”, “sad” and asked, “How could she do this to herself?”
Ball was devastated. In 1986 she appeared on ‘The Late Show with Joan Rivers’ to promote the series and told Rivers how dejected she’d been by the “lousy notices” she received. “I can take critique about the show, I’ve done that for years, but to be critiqued for coming back at all, that threw me. I cried, my god I cried.” She added, “I didn’t know that I could be that frightened and hurt.”
Things never got better for ‘Life’. Ratings plummeted and the show fell to being among the worst rated on television. ABC cancelled ‘Life’, electing not to air even a full season. The network only aired 9 of the 13 episodes filmed.
The problem with ‘Life’ may have been something Ball herself had spoken about almost a decade before in 1977, during an interview with Barbara Walters. During the interview when Walters asked Ball why she left television, she responded by saying, “I’d been on long enough I thought and I’ve kind of always prided myself on knowing when to get off.” She added, “I just felt that I had outgrown that stage and also with the new shows, I began to feel a little old-fashion.”
She echoed that sentiment on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Joan Rivers as a guest host in 1985. When Rivers asked Ball if she would do a new sitcom, Ball responded, “No, I wouldn’t try to top what we did.”
An indication of why Ball ultimately decided to change course and do the new series seems to be found in those interviews as well.With Rivers in 1985, Ball told her, “I like to work, I miss not working.” She told Walters in their 1977 interview that ending her multi-decade television run was “traumatic”. Ball also told Walters that following ending her run, she was “in limbo” and “in shock”. She added, “there wasn’t anything I wanted to do but go back to work.”
Ball largely disappeared from the public eye following the failure of ‘Life’, aside from what would be her final public appearance, at the 61st Annual Academy Awards in 1989. She, alongside fellow presenter Bob Hope, received a standing ovation.
Ball would pass away one month later of heart failure.
‘Life with Lucy’ has drifted into obscurity since its original airing. It is the only Lucy show that has never been released for purchase and, aside from a one-time stint on ‘Nick at Nite’, never aired in syndication.