End of a golden era: last‘I Love Lucy’ writer dies at 98

Posted 10/26/17

Lucille Ball was a gifted physical comedienne, but she always insisted that she was more brave than funny.

In the introduction to her mother’s autobiography, Lucie Arnaz said Ball’s idea of a …

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End of a golden era: last‘I Love Lucy’ writer dies at 98

Posted

Lucille Ball was a gifted physical comedienne, but she always insisted that she was more brave than funny.

In the introduction to her mother’s autobiography, Lucie Arnaz said Ball’s idea of a joke was to wait until someone left the room at a party and to shout upon his or her return, “Why don’t ya say that to his face?”

Ball relied heavily on her writing staff to come up with the zany situations that became 179 classic episodes of “I Love Lucy.” Bob Schiller, the last member of that staff, died Oct. 10 at age 98.

Schiller and his writing partner, Bob Weiskopf, joined the show in the fifth season.

They worked alongside Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr., who had been with Ball since “My Favorite Husband,” the radio show that begat the TV sitcom.

“There was talk of calling us three Bobs and a babe, but fortunately that never caught on,” Davis joked in “Laughing with Lucy,” the 2005 autobiography she co-wrote with Carroll.

The credit of Schiller and Weiskopf first appeared on the season five opener, “Lucy Visits Grauman’s,” in which Lucy Ricardo steals John Wayne’s footprints. They had a hand in all the European episodes from the fifth season, including “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” which has the famous grape stomping scene, as well as the season six episodes that brought the Ricardos and Mertzes to Connecticut.

In 2000, Schiller and Weiskopf were asked in an interview for the Archive of American Television if they knew “I Love Lucy” would become a classic.

Schiller pointed out that the show was a hit during its original run. It was number one in the Nielsen ratings for four of its six seasons and was the first show to go out on top.

What the writers did not anticipate, he added, was syndication.

“We would have asked for a better contract. We got four runs at $125 apiece. We made $500 on the residuals,” Schiller told the interviewer.

The pair, along with Carroll and Davis, also wrote most of the first two seasons of Ball’s follow-up series, “The Lucy Show.”

In the decades that followed, Schiller and Weiskopf also wrote for Red Skelton, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson and handed in memorable scripts for Norman Lear’s groundbreaking sitcoms.

On “Maude,” they tackled divorce, adultery and alcoholism — topics that would have been off-limits to writers in the days when Lucy Ricardo could be “expecting” but not pregnant so as not to offend TV audiences. They penned the season two opener in which Bea Arthur is slapped by her husband after confronting him about his drinking problem.

They were nominated for an Emmy for “Edith’s 50th Birthday,” a two-part season eight episode of “All in the Family” in which Edith is almost raped. They won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series that year for “Cousin Liz,” in which Edith learns that her deceased cousin’s longtime roommate was her lesbian partner.

Another poignant episode Weiskopf and Schiller penned for “All in the Family” was “Edith’s Crisis of Faith.”

In “Laughing with Lucy,” Davis described being part of a writing team as “a little like being married, only you get to go home at night to somebody else.”

She then shared this anecdote about a time that Schiller and Weiskopf had an argument over a joke.

“Weiskopf left the room. After an interval, Schiller asked their secretary, ‘Where’s Weis?’ She answered that he got in his car and went home,” Davis wrote.

The pseudo-marital tension is on display in the 2000 interview for the Archive when Weiskopf follows up Schiller’s comments on syndication with his own story about a phone call he received from Desi Arnaz during a 1960 writers’ strike.

“What’s that got to do with the strike?” Schiller asked. He then turned to the interviewer and quipped, “See how he needs me?”

Weiskopf died in 2001, the year that “I Love Lucy” fans celebrated the show’s 50th anniversary.

Carroll died in 2007 at age 88, and Davis died in 2011 at age 90.

Davis has an amazing story of her own as one of the few female “girl writers” in the early days of television. Ever the lady, she dedicated a chapter to sharing the names and accomplishments of her contemporaries in a chapter of “Laughing with Lucy” titled “You Wouldn’t Fit In, You’re a Girl.”

A golden era of television died with Schiller and the rest of the “I Love Lucy” veterans.

Carroll said it best in a 2001 interview: “I’m not too sure about these reality shows. They take 16 contestants, 100 crew, tons of equipment, go to Borneo and all we had to do was say, ‘Ethel, if Ricky finds out I bought this hat, he’ll kill me.’”

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.