Father Knows Best – How Jess Oppenheimer Overcame His Struggles to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time – Jewish Journal
June 16, 2022
“I am firmly convinced that having some kind of serious maladjustment in childhood that gives you an offbeat slant on life is one of the most important prerequisites for a comedy writer,” Jess Oppenheimer, the creator, head writer and producer of “I Love Lucy” observed at the outset of his memoir (co-written by his son, Gregg), “Laughs, Luck…and Lucy…How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time” (Syracuse University Press, 1996). Yes, the man behind one of the most beloved television shows of all time, whom Lucille Ball called “the brains” of “I Love Lucy,” was a nice Jewish guy with a difficult childhood, an overbearing mother and an eye for the utter ridiculousness of the human condition that still remains unmatched by most comedy writers.
For me, the sun and the moon revolve around “I Love Lucy,” which premiered over 70 years ago. Anyone who loves to laugh ought to appreciate Lucille Ball. But anyone who loves to write ought to appreciate Jess Oppenheimer. I had always wanted to interview his son Gregg about his iconic father, whom I believe doesn’t receive enough credit as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century — television, literary or otherwise. So, when Gregg granted me an interview last month, I immediately pitched a cover story about Oppenheimer and his son for our Father’s Day issue. At the Journal, we often focus on present-day visionaries, and for good reason. But sometimes, isn’t it great to look back on the lives of past luminaries? They ground us and always serve as a reminder that there often is so much to admire from the past.
“If you are completely integrated, well-adjusted and happy; if you accept the commonplace as commonplace; then there is simply nothing funny in it,” wrote Oppenheimer.
Indeed, one of the best gifts Oppenheimer gave us was that his observations, as recounted in his memoir, are deliciously applicable to any time period. Yes, even maladjustment in childhood, if channeled properly, can turn one into a great comedic mind. “If you are completely integrated, well-adjusted and happy; if you accept the commonplace as commonplace; then there is simply nothing funny in it,” wrote Oppenheimer. “On the other hand, I can tell you based on my own experience that if you can’t quite conform, if you don’t feel exactly the way everyone else feels, then everything that other people do can take on a sort of ridiculousness.”
If anyone knew about watching the world from the outside, it was Oppenheimer, who, during the course of his life (1913-1988), suffered from double vision, which he only discovered when he was in his late twenties. Growing up in San Francisco, he struggled to play sports like the other neighborhood boys, or even to look anyone in the eye. People thought he was being dishonest, which made Jess so self-conscious that he would have mental blocks and be unable to speak.
“Because of my vision problem and the emotional disturbances it caused me, practically every social instinct I had was wrong,” he wrote. Fans of “I Love Lucy” will find this deeply ironic, given that no one wrote “people” better than Jess Oppenheimer — from the milkman to the best friends and even the showgirls — each spoke and acted their part perfectly because Oppenheimer understood what made people tick.
Though “Lucy” is as much a testament to friendship as it is to romantic love, growing up, Jess didn’t have any friends. “They [the local boys] didn’t like me. They didn’t want me around. For fun, they used to tie my hands and feet and leave me, accompanied by several cats and dogs, lying in a dark, dusty coal bin for the afternoon,” he wrote.
The young Oppenheimer had it coming, he acquiesced, because he was “defensive and sarcastic”—wholly unrecognizable from the comedy genius he grew up to be. “He was a nasty kid because everyone was mean to him,” his son, Gregg, told the Journal from his home in Santa Monica.
But there was something about Oppenheimer (who was named Jessurun after his maternal grandfather, Isaac Jessurun): He was self-centered and snarky, but undeniably bright. When he was in the third grade, Professor Lewis Terman of Stanford University (creator of the famous Stanford-Binet IQ Test) included Oppenheimer as part of his important study on gifted children (at the time, Oppenheimer had an IQ of 141). The group of children was called the “Termites,” and Terman had many thoughts about Oppenheimer. Foremost among them, the professor concluded in Oppenheimer’s file: “I could detect no signs of a sense of humor.”
In his defense, Terman may have been right. Oppenheimer wasn’t funny, yet. First, he had to learn about the “inside” from his lonely seat on the “outside.” He worked meticulously to study how others acted, so he could improve his relationships, learning what was acceptable: “Then when I later found myself in a familiar situation, I would have to overpower my instinctive reaction (which was usually bitter and antisocial), and instead I would literally ‘act out’ what I had learned by watching others,” he wrote. “This allowed me to survive, but it had another effect as well — it made me a more than casual observer of human behavior, something that would pay off later in my writing career.”
It was only a matter of time before Oppenheimer found a survival tactic in humor. “Only because of my ability to make the other kids laugh was I eventually able to regain some contact with them,” he wrote.
It was only a matter of time before Oppenheimer found a survival tactic in humor. “Only because of my ability to make the other kids laugh was I eventually able to regain some contact with them,” he wrote. It was during his San Francisco childhood that the mind that would later write such “I Love Lucy” episodes as “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (Lucille’s favorite episode — think grape-stomping) and “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (Vitameatavegamin) came to life: “Little by little,” wrote Oppenheimer, “with increasing skill, my every waking moment saw my brain taking in everything I heard or read and testing it for comedy content.”
When asked whether his father was funny at home, Gregg responded, “Oh, yeah. He’d crack us all up. Some of it was puns. Mom would say, ‘What do you feel like for dinner?’ My sister Jo would say, ‘I feel like chicken.’ Then I’d say ‘I feel like spaghetti.’ To which my dad would respond, ‘You look like spaghetti.’”
From 1951-60, the family lived in a home on Burlingame Avenue in West Los Angeles, which is still there today. Oppenheimer bought the house from legendary MGM hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff. It was Guilaroff who, in 1943, had turned Lucille Ball into a redhead for her role in the movie, “DuBarry Was a Lady.” Carl Reiner lived down the street and, according to Gregg, it was an idyllic place in which to grow up.
“It’s No Good”
“My grandmother, Stella, was bitter,” said Gregg. “She didn’t have as great a sense of humor as my father, and was tough to live with.” In the book, Oppenheimer was even more explicit when he described his mother’s attendance at his theater group plays (in which he was an actor, not a writer): “After each line I would look at her and she’d just silently shake her head, as if to tell me, ‘It’s no good.’ This started to bother me so much that I finally blew it completely, forgetting where I was in the script.”
Oppenheimer’s father, James, owned San Francisco’s largest luggage store. He was born in Germany and died in an accident when Jess was 16. Both James and Stella were Jewish, but in 1908, five years before Oppenheimer was born, James went blind as a result of eye surgery. Desperate to regain his sight, he explored different religions. “Less than a year later,” wrote Oppenheimer about his father, “during his Christian Science period, he suddenly regained sight in both his eyes for no discernible reason.” This meant that Oppenheimer and his sister, Janice, grew up in Christian Science, but his mother always told him that if anyone asked about his religion, he was to say, “I’m Jewish and proud of it.” In hindsight, recalled Oppenheimer, “This got me a lot of bloody noses.”
While Stella enjoyed watching “I Love Lucy,” she didn’t express support as much as Ball’s mother, Desiree, who, according to Gregg, attended every filming and sat in the front row.
But Stella nevertheless took pride in Oppenheimer. Once, when he was dating the famous starlet Gertrude Nielsen, the couple went out to dinner with Stella. Fans approached Nielsen at the table, but Stella had her mind on her son, which probably explains why she turned to the famous Nielsen and asked, “And what do you do, my dear?” Stella died in 1962, when Gregg was 11.
What was it like to have been the son of Jess Oppenheimer? For one thing, father and son discussed a great deal related to comedy theory. “We would watch and critique a lot of shows together,” said Gregg. Oppenheimer’s favorite shows? “Your Show of Shows,” “The Phil Silvers Show” and “Car 54: Where Are You?”
Oppenheimer didn’t want Joanne or Gregg to enter show business for a living, because he understood the limits of talent — even incredible talent — knowing better than anyone that success was partly about being at the right place at the right time. “He always said, ‘I don’t care what grades you get, as long as you’re doing your best.’” said Gregg. “But if I brought home a B, he’d say, ‘You’re not doing your best.’”
The Luck of the Balding Comedic Genius
“Luck. There was no doubt about it. The show (‘I Love Lucy’) had been singularly blessed with unbelievably good luck from the very moment of its conception,” wrote Oppenheimer. “Somehow, the perfect group of special talents had just happened to be available and in the right spot at precisely the right time in history for this particular project. From the reading of the first script, it was apparent that the kind of material that we most easily and naturally created was right on the button with the entire cast’s sense of humor, and they were able to perform it brilliantly with a minimum of effort.”
In many ways, Oppenheimer proved an average student, but luck seldom seemed to leave his side. As a junior at Stanford, he visited the KFRC radio studio in San Francisco and became enchanted. “Radio was magic,” he recalled. His debut radio performance featured his own original comedy sketch on the coast-to-coast program, “Blue Monday Jamboree.” But unimpressed with his grades at Stanford, in 1934, Stella offered him a chance to skip his senior year and join her and Janice on a trip around the world. When he returned home, he became involved in the theater group at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, called the Community Center Players. Oppenheimer loved their passion and dedication, and found a mentor in the group’s revered director, Ralph Freud. The Players had many “wonderful, hilarious” experiences, and working creatively with such a team set the building blocks of Oppenheimer’s later transition heading a television team at “I Love Lucy.”
But Oppenheimer never did make it as an actor; he was too self-conscious. He briefly worked in the fur business and then as a life insurance salesman, prompting his family to constantly ask others, “Do you know anyone who might have a job for Jess?” Sometimes, he would get together with friends, who would share dreams of making $50 a week. “For some reason, I could never see myself settling for that,” wrote Oppenheimer. “I don’t know what prompted it, but I had dreams of making it big.” Indeed, burgeoning within the 20-something Jess was true writing intuition. In contemplating a one-act play he wrote for the JCC’s theater group, he wrote, “I had just written one line following the other because it seemed to be the next line to put down.” Oppenheimer expected immediate success, but Freud challenged his discipline. “Only one thing matters: work,” Freud said to his young disciple.
“Laughs, Luck … and Lucy” is the ultimate testament to the importance of failure. In the book, Oppenheimer (and Gregg) even published a series of rejection letters he received from celebrities with whom he wanted to work (well after he concluded his work on “I Love Lucy”).
The way Jess describes Hollywood at the time, down to the most minute details of buildings and spaces that no longer exist, renders his memoir a historical love letter to the City of Angels.
Oppenheimer told his family that he wanted to move to Hollywood and be a writer; they gave him six months to earn, through writing, at least $500. In October 1936, he drove 450 miles south to Los Angeles. His first stop? A drug store at Hollywood and Vine. The way Jess describes Hollywood at the time, down to the most minute details of buildings and spaces that no longer exist, renders his memoir a historical love letter to the City of Angels. As luck would have it, within a few hours of arriving in Hollywood, he recognized a friend from San Francisco who helped him secure a job with the famous advertising agency, Young and Rubicam (Y&R) as a comedy writer for the radio show, “Packard Hour.” On his first day in LA, he also rented a small apartment on Sunset Boulevard near Western Avenue. Cost of rent: $37.50 per month.
Over 15 years later, Oppenheimer would win two Emmys for “I Love Lucy” (he was nominated five times) and earn a great deal more than $50 per week, but back in 1936, his “heart was pounding” when he learned he had been hired as a staff writer for the “Packard Hour.” He wrote, “Back in my apartment, I sat down to write a letter home, bearing the glad tidings. I was ecstatic. I was working in nighttime radio in Hollywood, and I was the happiest 23-year-old alive!” His weekly salary was $125 per week.
One of the greatest gifts of the book is the way Oppenheimer describes the characters with whom he worked in the early days of radio, including Eddie Moran, a gag man. “I remember thinking to myself that Eddie would be quite handsome if it weren’t for his looks,” wrote Jess. Other stories about luminaries include Fred Astaire, Groucho Marx, Douglas Fairbanks, Jack Benny and, of course, Lucille Ball.
He worked with Astaire (another perfectionist) when the actor emceed a variety hour for the “Packard Hour” and learned how to write “lead-ins,” which gave him a critical skill set — namely, how to express an idea in only a few words. Soon, Oppenheimer was offered a writing job for the “Jell-O Program,” starring Jack Benny, the most popular radio star at the time. Benny, according to Oppenheimer, “had the best timing of any comedian I’ve ever seen.” Oppenheimer even worked with the legendary Al Jolson on the “Lifebuoy Program.” In spring 1941, he began writing for “The Rudy Vallee Program” on NBC radio. Whenever a producer asked him his salary, Oppenheimer couldn’t say it without giggling. “The conditioning of years of San Francisco values never bridged the gap to fanciful movieland,” he wrote.
During the Second World War, he served in the Coast Guard with, among others, Jack Dempsey and a then-unknown actor named Cesar Romero, holding the rank of chief petty officer at Wilmington Patrol Base in Los Angeles. It was at Wilmington where he was finally diagnosed with double vision. “It was the first time in my life that I realized that other people see things ‘all in one’ … How was it possible that I never suspected, never complained, never spoke of it before?” he wrote. The doctor assigned him eye exercises and, for the first time, he experienced 3-D vision. One month later, in 1942, he met a young woman named Estelle at Wallichs Music City on Sunset and Vine (Glenn Wallichs later cofounded Capitol Records). The beautiful brunette managed Music City’s Pop Record Department. Oppenheimer and “Es” were married on August 5, 1947 (he was 33; she was 24).
As news of Oppenheimer’s comedic writing chops spread, an agent named Ray Stark asked him if would write for his mother-in-law, the famous Fanny Brice, on her popular radio show, “Baby Snooks,” about a smart-mouthed little girl who incessantly drove her father up the wall (years later, Stark produced the 1968 film “Funny Girl” about Brice). In “Snooks,” Oppenheimer fine-tuned the character of a clever, but deeply immature female who always gets herself into trouble.
Five years later, in May 1948, “Baby Snooks” went off the air after an unresolved salary dispute between Fanny Brice and CBS. For the first time in years, Oppenheimer found himself without a job.
“A Strong Personality”
In August 1948, Harry Ackerman, head of West Coast programming for CBS radio, called Oppenheimer and asked if he had heard of a new Lucille Ball radio program called “My Favorite Husband.” Would he write a script for the unsponsored show? Oppenheimer had always thought of Ball as a “wisecracking showgirl type”—the opposite of the “Baby Snooks” character he had cultivated for Brice. The initial premise of “My Favorite Husband” focused on the characters Liz Cugat and her husband, George, a vice president of a bank. Oppenheimer immediately and intuitively made a major change in the script: He transformed the character of Liz (played by Ball): “I decided to make Liz Cugat a little bit less sophisticated, a little bit more childlike and impulsive, than the character who had appeared in the first few shows — in short, more like Baby Snooks,” he wrote. “She would be a stage-struck schemer with an overactive imagination that got her into embarrassing situations. This would give me an excuse to engage Lucy in some broad slapstick comedy.” Little did Oppenheimer know that he had created what would later become the character of Lucy Ricardo.
When Oppenheimer signed on as head writer for “My Favorite Husband,” all of his friends advised him against working with Ball. At a rehearsal, he noticed that the producer-director was seated in the control room, surrounded by nearly a dozen prescription bottles of pills. “I remember making a mental note at the time that somewhere in this group there must be, shall we say, a ‘strong personality.’ It turned out to be Lucille Ball,” he wrote.
But, he figured, he had worked well with Brice, who was also strong-willed. “There was definitely something special about Lucille Ball, and I decided to take a chance,” he reflected. On “My Favorite Husband,” he was introduced to Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr., who had already been writing for the show; the three worked beautifully together. But Ball proved to be another matter.
One time, she read a script that Oppenheimer, Pugh and Carroll had spent the night perfecting. Ball loved the script, which was a work-in-progress, until she read the last line. “She screamed and she yelled. She swore. She threw the script across the room. Then she got it and tore it to pieces and threw it again,” wrote Oppenheimer. He immediately confronted her: “We need a bit more respect than that. I can’t say it’s been a pleasant experience working with you, but at least it’s over.” Like his mother, Ball was an unabashed perfectionist.
But to his surprise, Oppenheimer learned that Ball was deeply insecure, and felt the need to be reined in by those whom she surmised could actually get the job done. After rewriting the “Liz” character, Oppenheimer changed the couple’s last name from “Cugat” to “Cooper,” but worried that the average listener couldn’t relate to the vice president of a bank and his wife. Liz and George also needed another married couple as a counterpoint, intuited Oppenheimer. That couple (portrayed on radio by Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet) was later played to perfection on TV by Vivian Vance and William Frawley on “I Love Lucy.”
Surprisingly, Ball could play anyone—except for herself. To calm her nerves, Oppenheimer wrote Ball’s Jell-O radio commercials as nursery rhymes, having her play the spider in “Little Miss Muffet.” The audience loved Ball’s high pitched, nasal “spider voice” (and her accompanying grimace) and it quickly became a Lucy trademark—an embarrassed reaction whenever she was found out. On “I Love Lucy,” script stage directions would call for “(SPIDER)” whenever it was needed.
Ball and Oppenheimer truly admired one another. “Lucy had such great respect for dad, and dad thought of the world of Lucy,” said Gregg. And Ball was always warm with Oppenheimer’s children. When Gregg was four, he visited the set and met Ball, who smiled and asked him, “Where did you get those big, brown eyes?” With a deadpan timing reminiscent of his father, Gregg replied, “They came with the face.”
Incredibly, while “My Favorite Husband” was popular with listeners, CBS constantly criticized Oppenheimer, Carroll and Pugh for writing what would become one of radio’s first broadcasting situation comedies. In other radio comedies, characters entered, did their “shtick” and then left. But Oppenheimer and his team were creating coherent story lines. “They [CBS] kept telling us this would never fly,” he wrote.
And despite the fact that listeners at home could not see Balls wonderful physical comedy, the media took notice of her undeniable talent. The Hollywood Reporter lamented that it was “too bad that her funny grimaces and gestures aren’t visible over the radio.” For her part, Ball wanted to transition “My Favorite Husband” to the then-nascent medium of television, but not with her on-air husband Richard Denning; she adamantly wanted her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz.
When CBS refused, claiming that no one would believe such a marriage (Lucy and Desi had already been married for a decade), the couple took to the road with a vaudeville show (written by Pugh and Carroll) that was beloved by audiences. Only then did CBS agree to an “audition program” (known today as a TV pilot) that would be due in six weeks. But Oppenheimer still didn’t have a series concept. At brainstorming meetings at CBS Columbia Square, everyone asked, “What do you do with a comedienne and a Cuban orchestra leader?”
Oppenheimer turned to CBS’s Ackerman, posing a simple question: “Why don’t we do a show about a middle-class working stiff who works very hard as his job as a bandleader, and likes nothing better than to come home at night and relax with his wife, who doesn’t like staying home and is dying to get into show business herself?”
There were roadblocks from the beginning. Ball and Arnaz wanted the show to be produced in Hollywood, which, at the time, was inconceivable, as all television programs were filmed in New York City. There was a simple reason for this: Back then, it was impossible for the entire country to watch a television show at the same time because there was no cross-country coaxial cable. The 85 percent of viewers on the East Coast and in the Midwest who watched a television show live could see a clear picture; anyone else would watch a kinescope (Oppenheimer defined it as “a low-quality motion picture of the program photographed off the tube when it went out live, and then replayed later”). But no one, least of all Oppenheimer, Ball and Arnaz, wanted to move to New York.
There was a solution, and it was radically brilliant: Film the show in Hollywood, but on 35mm film. This explains why, 71 years after its debut, the film quality of “I Love Lucy” is unmatched by any other series of its time.
All of this would double the production costs, but Ball and Arnaz agreed to take a pay cut in exchange for good film quality. Arnaz told CBS he wanted Desilu, the studio he owned with his wife, to have the right to sell the show overseas. The negatives, said Arnaz, also had to be owned by Desilu. Amazingly, CBS agreed. “So suddenly here I was, producing a filmed television series, and I knew nothing about film,” wrote Oppenheimer. He attended a two-week crash course at a motion picture film laboratory to learn the basics.
There was also the matter of a name. No one had succeeded in finding a name for the show. Oppenheimer continuously reviewed all of the options. “I kept coming back to the same title: ‘I Love Lucy,’” he wrote. But Arnaz was already giving him a hard time about receiving second billing in the credits (after Ball). Once Oppenheimer settled on the name of the show, he had an epiphany: “The ‘I’ in ‘I Love Lucy’ was Desi. I had given him first-place billing after all.”
Acclaimed songwriter Eliot Daniel was tasked with writing a theme song; he later told Oppenheimer that once he played the first four notes, everything else fell into place.
On March 2, 1951, Jess sat down at his typewriter and wrote a one-page series concept for a television show called “I Love Lucy.” He then drove to the Screen Writers’ Guild Office on Sunset Boulevard and registered the idea for $1.
According to Oppenheimer, CBS hated the completed kinescope, but nothing could bring him down: that week, Estelle had given birth to their son, Gregg (their daughter, Joanne, was born three years earlier in 1948).
Two weeks later, he taped the final radio episode of “My Favorite Husband.” There was still no buyer for the television show. Even worse, he was expected to deliver one show per week (rather than every two weeks), which effectively meant that Ball would have to abandon any further film pursuits. In the end, she sacrificed her screen career and took a major gamble on television.
The show faced enormous technical challenges, from adjusting cameras and lighting (and then dealing with cameras that completely blocked the audience’s views). Oppenheimer worried that something would go wrong in the film lab. In fact, he worried about everything, just as he had during his days in radio.
Instead of television cameras, the crew used film cameras, and relied on the brilliant Karl Freund to shoot each scene using three motion picture cameras (later edited together using a special Moviola machine affectionately known as the “three-headed monster”). Oppenheimer wasn’t satisfied with timed laughs of other TV shows; he wanted a live audience, because he knew that Ball thrived from live feedback and laughter.
He had one of his biggest bouts of luck when Freund, an Academy-Award-winning cinematographer, agreed to work on the show. Oppenheimer lovingly called him a “Prussian teddy bear.” For his part, Freund always referred to the overworked Oppenheimer as the “old man with the young face.”
Rather than film at CBS, the crew used an eight-soundstage motion picture studio called General Service Studios that, at the time, was going bankrupt; they rented a stage full-time and used it for much-needed rehearsals. But the atmosphere was anything but relaxed. “Our television premiere was more than a month away, but I was already beginning to wish that someone would un-invent television and return us all to those beautiful dream days when the picture people made pictures and the radio people did radio and none of us knew how well off we were,” wrote Oppenheimer.
The Redhead Takes America by Storm
At 9 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 15, 1951, “I Love Lucy” entered American homes for the first time.
No one could have expected the public’s response. “The show’s popularity kept growing and growing until it just got completely out of hand,” wrote Oppenheimer. “It seems that I had been wrong about who the ‘I’ in ‘I Love Lucy’ was — it wasn’t just Desi, but everyone else who tuned in as well.” Director William Asher once said of Oppenheimer: “He was the field general. Jess presided over all the meetings, and ran the whole show. He was very sharp.”
Some episodes were borrowed from “My Favorite Husband”; others were inspired by real-life events, including “Ricky Thinks He’s Getting Bald (inspired by Oppenheimer’s own experience with a “scalp agitator” to combat his hopeless baldness); “The Passports” (based on his mother’s experience trying to obtain a passport in 1934); “In Palm Springs” (inspired by Oppenheimer’s real-life annoying habit of jingling his keys in his pocket); and “Changing the Boys’ Wardrobe” (based on Estelle’s efforts to destroy Oppenheimer’s old, worn-out clothes). Oppenheimer’s (and Gregg’s) favorite episode of “I Love Lucy”? “LA at Last,” in which Lucy meets William Holden. When Ethel famously cuts Lucy’s thick spaghetti with small scissors at The Brown Derby, “that was my mother,” said Gregg. “My mother always carried sewing scissors in her purse.”
Gregg recalls growing up in a house with nine television sets, many of them props from his dad’s TV shows. By April 1952, Nielsen ratings estimated that “I Love Lucy” reached a record 23 million people in nine-and-a-half million homes. Even Professor Terman (from Stanford University) wrote to congratulate Oppenheimer. On January 19, 1953, 72 percent of all homes with televisions watched “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” (Lucy gave birth to her son that same day). That number — 44 million viewers — was 15 million more than would tune in for President Eisenhower’s inauguration the following day.
But Oppenheimer never let his incredible work get to his head. He and Estelle preferred to stay home with their children, rather than attend glamorous Hollywood parties (though, before he was married, Oppenheimer enjoyed attending a weekly salon at the home of Gene Kelly). He loved golf and played at the Brentwood Country Club. He also loved to watch films at The Aero Theater, a single-screen theater in Santa Monica that opened in 1940.
His closest friends were Mel Blanc (the legendary voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and countless other cartoon characters); Hans Conried (the actor and voice of Captain Hook in Disney’s “Peter Pan”); and Jerry Hausner (who played Ricky’s agent, Jerry, on “I Love Lucy”). In the 1960s and 70s, Oppenheimer also spent some of his free time producing shows for Leo Baeck Temple in LA (Joanne and Gregg followed his footsteps in the 1990s and produced shows there). In the 1970s, Oppenheimer even taught a writing class about “I Love Lucy” at Kibbutz Mevo Hama in northern Israel, where Joanna was living at the time.
“I Love Lucy” gave the world its first television rerun (“The Diet”) and its first flashback (Ball wasn’t available to film in the months before and after giving birth, so many scenes were re-used as flashbacks). A talented inventor, Oppenheimer held 18 patents, but his most famous and enduring was the in-lens teleprompter (especially beloved by politicians), which Ball and Arnaz first used during a 1953 commercial for Philip Morris cigarettes.
In spring 1956, Oppenheimer wanted the show to conclude while it was still on top, after its first five seasons (he had co-written and produced 153 episodes). It was only when Ball and Arnaz decided to continue anyway that he left. Oppenheimer went on to create and produce a variety of shows, including “Angel,” “Glynis,” and “The Debbie Reynolds Show.” He also produced the “U.S. Steel Hour” and “Get Smart.” But “the most fulfilling work he ever had was on ‘I Love Lucy,’” said Gregg.
A Beginning, A Middle and an End
Oppenheimer passed away on December 27, 1988. He succumbed to heart failure after complications from intestinal surgery at the age 75. Oppenheimer passed without having written most of his memoir. Nearly 20 years later, Estelle passed away in 2007.
At the time of his father’s death, Gregg was working as an attorney in LA, and decided he wanted to finish Oppenheimer’s memoir. But how would he be able to write in nearly the same exact voice as his legendary father, and from where would be locate all of Oppenheimer’s wonderful stories?
Fortunately, Oppenheimer kept many notes, including some in which he re-told various conversations with everyone from absent-minded waitresses to some of the biggest celebrities at the time. Gregg took a one-year hiatus from work and began collecting everything his father had ever written (or published), including a journal he kept during his 1934 trip around the world. There was even an essay Oppenheimer had written for Look Magazine in 1953 titled, “Lucy’s Two Babies.” Oppenheimer also kept notes about topics he was going to write. One day, Gregg found three hours’ worth of tape at his mother’s house, in which Oppenheimer was interviewed about his life (in 1961). The tape filled in the final gaps for Gregg. “I wrote the stories the way I had heard him tell them my whole life,” he said.
Gregg began writing the memoir in 1991; it was published in 1996, the same year he stopped practicing law. All royalties from the book benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. His second publication was a play titled, “I Love Lucy: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Sitcom,” which premiered in Los Angeles in July 2018. Recorded in front of a live audience, the play was broadcast nationwide on radio (and online). A serialized version of the play was broadcast by BBC Radio in August 2020. “Storytelling is very important,” he said. “It’s the way you tell things. I was a lawyer; in a trial, you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end.”
On his YouTube channel, Gregg recreated an entire episode of “My Favorite Husband.” He also produced all of the “I Love Lucy” DVDs for CBS. “It’s hard to come up with bonus material that’s that old!” he said. Gregg enjoys directing and is currently producing, directing and editing an audiobook of “Laughs, Luck … and Lucy.”
Before his death, Oppenheimer gave Gregg a draft of his memoir and asked for his comments. Being a practicing lawyer, Gregg aggressively marked up the memoir. “After reading my markup, he [Oppenheimer] turned to me and said, ‘You know, you’re one hell of an editor!’ That’s one of my proudest moments,” said Gregg.
Gregg and Joanne both attended Sunday school at Leo Baeck. For the past 25 years, Gregg has attended a Torah class taught by acclaimed writer Marshall Goldberg (“The New Colossus”), switching to online classes during the pandemic. “I learn so much from these classes,” said Gregg.
When asked if there’s something about being Jewish that lends itself so well to comedy, Gregg responded, “I think to be Jewish is to question everything. Once you start questioning a lot of stuff which people take for granted, you realize it’s all pretty ridiculous.”
When asked if there’s something about being Jewish that lends itself so well to comedy, Gregg responded, “I think to be Jewish is to question everything. Once you start questioning a lot of stuff which people take for granted, you realize it’s all pretty ridiculous.”
The Final Word
Oppenheimer lived through the birth of radio and then, the birth of television. In fact, he was an integral part of both media. In the end, it seems that Oppenheimer also possessed double vision on a metaphoric level: He saw so much more of the big picture than seemingly anyone else.
“The show had so much going for it in every aspect,” Gregg observed about the continued popularity of ‘I Love Lucy,’ adding, “It wasn’t topical, but universal; it held up a mirror to the audience.”
“The show had so much going for it in every aspect,” Gregg observed about the continued popularity of “I Love Lucy,” adding, “It was on film; it wasn’t topical, but universal; it held up a mirror to the audience; it was a once-in-a-lifetime coming together of the greatest cast, writers, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer; there was pitch-perfect timing and luck. Every setback was another door opening, and it was just a beautiful thing.”
The best piece of writing advice that Oppenheimer ever offered his son? He urged him to never write dialogue that would be out of character for someone, just to get a laugh.
In painstakingly completing his father’s memoir, Gregg offered the ultimate service to a beloved father: He kept him, and his stories, alive.
Today, Gregg possesses Oppenheimer’s first Emmy statue; Joanne has the other. In painstakingly completing his father’s memoir, Gregg offered the ultimate service to a beloved father: He kept him, and his stories, alive. And ultimately, it’s the readers—young and old, Hollywood old-timers and burgeoning writers who, today, can’t even afford a small apartment near Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue — who have benefitted and will continue to benefit most from the extraordinary and intuitive connection between father and son (Oppenheimer and Gregg). Indeed, “Laughs, Luck … and Lucy” should be standard reading for anyone contemplating a career in writing, comedic or otherwise. There’s even a chapter titled, “Anatomy of a Lucy Script.” And Oppenheimer, as only he could (with Gregg’s indispensable work), gives us a delicious account of the development of the broadcasting industry — something we truly take for granted today. At times, the book reads like an episode of “Lucy” and includes an audio CD of previously unreleased radio comedy programs featuring the comedian herself. We even learn that the legendary fight during the grape-stomping scene in “Lucy’s Italian Movie” wasn’t even part of the original script. Each story is a treasure, to be salivated over and enjoyed.
But true to form, in the book’s preface, Oppenheimer admits, “I had always resisted writing about my life because I didn’t feel that I was important or interesting enough for other people to sit down and read about. Besides, I didn’t really have anything interesting to say.”
Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker, and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @TabbyRefael