The actress/comedienne, who died in 1989 at age 77, was best known for her bright red hair and screwball antics in I Love Lucy. Her physical comedy — and willingness to go for the joke regardless of how it made her look — proved that women could be every bit as funny as men (even though some men still don't like to acknowledge that fact).
Less public were Ball's progressive attitudes behind the scenes — in business as well as social issues. Her production company Desilu (owned first with husband Desi Arnaz and then solo after their divorce) pioneered the three-camera sitcom, which allowed the show to film with a live audience without interrupting the flow to get different camera angles.
The studio produced some of the top sitcoms of the era, but Ball's vision didn't stop at comedy. In fact, it was she who insisted that the studio produce the original Star Trek.
In 1980, People interviewed Ball on everything from women's liberation ("I've been so liberated I have nothing to squawk about") to substance abuse ("My idea of getting high was a Coca-Cola and an aspirin"). Her thoughts on gay rights were direct and logical — and quite radical for 30+ years ago:
"It's perfectly all right with me. Some of the most gifted people I've ever met or read about are homosexual. How can you knock it?"
One of her gifted friends, out writer/director Lee Tannen, wrote a book about his relationship with Ball in which he recounted a mutual friend telling her how much gay men adored her. She was fascinated to hear that a gay bar in West Hollywood played I Love Lucy marathons. Yet, Tannen told Out magazine that Ball herself wasn’t a gay icon.
"I don't think Lucille Ball is a gay icon," he said. "Lucy Ricardo is a gay icon. Lucy Ricardo was the underdog who was always trying to prove herself, and I think many gay men can identify with that."
Out concurs. "Lucy Ricardo was the perfect gay icon for the post-Stonewall generation. She wasn't a tragic victim like Judy Garland; the only time Lucy Ricardo got plastered was when she swallowed too much Vitameatavegamin. [She] wasn't sharp-tongued like Bette Davis or a monster like Joan Crawford: she was beautiful and funny… Many gay men can identify with kooky ideas that always seem to backfire, like when a gay man in his 40s dyes his hair platinum blond."
"The everlasting appeal of Lucy Ricardo for some gay men is that she's never going to lose the love of her man… Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz got a divorce, but the Ricardos will always remain the almost-perfect couple. The perfect couple would've been Lucy and Ethel as a pair of crazy lesbians."