‘I Love Lucy’ writer Madelyn Pugh Davis dies at 90
By Adam Bernstein,
Madelyn Pugh Davis, who helped define the TV sitcom as the co-writer of every episode of “I Love Lucy,” the 1950s series that showcased the grape-stomping, bonbon-cramming, health-tonic-swigging antics of a scatterbrained housewife, died of undisclosed causes April 20 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 90.
A veteran writer of radio sitcoms, Mrs. Davis became one of a handful of women who worked in the male-dominated medium of network television.
“She was one of the crucial people who really helped sustain one of the most dominant shows in the history of television,” said Ron Simon, a curator at the New York City-based Paley Center for Media.
In 2007, the publication Television Week named her one of the 25 most influential people who shaped the industry, noting that she was a principal writer on all 180 “I Love Lucy” episodes and 13 specials on CBS from 1951 to 1961.
The program was one of the top-three most-watched programs during its first six years on the air and won two Emmy Awards as best situation comedy. Forever in syndication, “I Love Lucy” made enduring household names of Lucille Ball and her real-life husband, Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz, as well as Vivian Vance and William Frawley as their quirky neighbors, the Mertzes.
If the show’s premise wasn’t particularly innovative — the wacky housewife, the irritated husband, the oddball friends —“I Love Lucy” was elevated by the anything-for-a-laugh conviction of the four leading actors and the irrepressible inventiveness of the scripts.
The initial writing force behind the show included Mrs. Davis (then known as Madelyn Pugh), her longtime writing partner Bob Carroll Jr. and their producer, Jess Oppenheimer. Writers Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf later joined the team.
Together they molded Ball, who had appeared in minor Hollywood dramas and comedies, into the lovably slapstick-prone Lucy Ricardo.
The show was propelled by a relentless physical humor, with Ball in one instance battling a giant loaf of bread that emerges from the oven and pins her to the wall. Other memorable sequences featured Ball slipping and sliding in a vat while mashing grapes and getting very drunk while filming a commercial for an alcohol-laced patent medicine called Vitameatavegamin.
Ball often credited the show’s writers for her success, and Mrs. Davis returned the compliment.
“The great thing about Lucy, besides her marvelous comic talent, was she would do anything you wrote. There was never that ego saying, ‘I don’t know. I won’t look good,’ ” Mrs. Davis told USA Today in 2001.
“We’d say, ‘Do you mind working with animals? Do you mind getting covered with clay? Do you mind letting someone slap chocolate in your face?’ ” Mrs. Davis said. “She never said no.”
Mrs. Davis said her favorite episodes included a 1952 show in which Lucy and Ethel land jobs in a chocolate factory, only to have the conveyor belt kick into overdrive.
Another episode, from 1955, centered on Lucy’s mortifying encounter with handsome Hollywood actor William Holden — he accidentally sets her fake nose on fire.
In an interview with an Indiana University alumni publication, Mrs. Davis said the script called for Ball to remove the nose and dip it in her teacup to extinguish the fire. Mrs. Davis said that during filming, “in front of the audience, she instead dipped her nose into the cup, which was so much funnier. She really understood these nuances of physical comedy that just made it work.”
Madelyn Pugh was born in Indianapolis on March 15, 1921. After graduating in 1942 with a journalism degree from Indiana University, she could not find work as a reporter and instead landed a staff writing job at a radio station in her home town.
Her career was soon boosted by World War II. With men away, she found herself in demand as a writer and soon was working for a CBS station in Los Angeles.
There, she teamed with Carroll on several shows, including “It’s a Great Life,” starring a young Steve Allen. By the late 1940s, they were hired onto “My Favorite Husband,” a CBS radio sitcom about a zany housewife (played by Ball) and her strait-laced husband (Richard Denning).
Ball brought them along to the nascent medium of television, where she borrowed elements of her “Husband” character in “I Love Lucy.” Arnaz stepped into the role of the husband.
“I Love Lucy” ran for six years as a weekly series, but the characters appeared in other specials and programs. Meanwhile, Mrs. Davis and Carroll wrote the CBS sitcom “Those Whiting Girls,” which aired from 1955 to 1957 and starred the show-business sisters Margaret and Barbara Whiting, and “The Mothers-in-Law,” which ran on NBC from 1967 to 1969 and starred Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard.
Mrs. Davis and Carroll also contributed to the story of “Yours, Mine and Ours” (1968), a film comedy starring Ball and Henry Fonda as a widow and widower who marry and care for their combined 18 children.
In addition to writing and producing other TV programs, the writing duo also contributed scripts to “The Lucy Show” (later renamed “Here’s Lucy”) on CBS from 1962 to 1974 — a show that did not include Arnaz — and then “Life With Lucy” (1986), an ABC folly that tried to recapture the misadventures of the early Lucy series.
Mrs. Davis and Carroll co-wrote a memoir, “Laughing With Lucy: My Life With America’s Leading Lady of Comedy” (2005).
Her first marriage, to producer Quinn Martin, ended in divorce. She was married to Dr. Richard Davis, a college boyfriend, from 1964 until his death in 2009.
Survivors include a son from her first marriage, Michael Quinn Martin of Los Angeles; four stepchildren; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
As the keeper of Lucille Ball’s TV persona in the 1950s, Mrs. Davis said she was often the first to test some of the physical comedy that made the show a success. It was up to her, in part, as to what made it into the shooting script.
“The worst one was trying out a unicycle,” she once said. “I ran into a wall and hit my head. We decided it was too dangerous for Lucy.”