Madelyn Pugh Davis dies at 90; 'I Love Lucy' writer
Madelyn Pugh Davis collaborated with partner Bob Carroll Jr. on the groundbreaking series in the 1950s and continued to work with Lucille Ball over four decades. The pioneering female comedy writer is remembered as a 'class act.'
Madelyn Pugh Davis in front of a still photo from the "I Love Lucy" show in Davis' home. (Los Angeles Times)
Davis, a pioneering female radio and TV comedy writer whose work with the red-haired queen of TV comedy spanned four decades, died Wednesday at her home in Bel-Air after a brief illness, said her son, Michael Quinn Martin.
The team of Davis and Carroll was writing Ball's CBS radio comedy "My Favorite Husband," co-starring Richard Denning, when they and their colleague, writer-producer Jess Oppenheimer, wrote the pilot episode for "I Love Lucy."
The Emmy Award-winning series about a wacky New York City housewife and her Cuban bandleader husband ran on CBS from 1951 to 1957. It was ranked No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings for four of its six seasons and was never out of the top three.
"I Love Lucy" has been playing around the world continuously ever since.
When interviewers asked Ball, who died in 1989, what she thought was the secret of her show's enduring popularity, she had a stock answer: "My writers."
"My mother never accepted an award where she didn't immediately say, 'I could not have done this without my writers.' She always put them first," Lucie Arnaz told The Times on Thursday.
"Madelyn was such a class act," Arnaz said. "She was a very private person, very soft-spoken, genteel, feminine — all those lovely words you associate with great ladies. And yet she had the ability to write this wacky, insane comedy for my mother.
"She and Bob together were just such a wonderful team, a great match-up. They complemented each other's zaniness."
Davis and Carroll, who were along for the "I Love Lucy" show's entire ride, wrote a string of classic episodes such as the ones in which Lucy and Ethel ( Vivian Vance) are chocolate candy dippers trying to contend with a fast-moving conveyor belt, Lucy stomps grapes in Italy, and she gets increasingly drunk doing a TV commercial for the health tonic Vitameatavegamin.
Davis, Carroll and producer-writer Oppenheimer wrote the first four seasons together — more than 125 episodes. Writers Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf joined them in 1955 and, after Oppenheimer left the show in 1956, Davis, Carroll, Schiller and Weiskopf wrote the remaining episodes.
Davis often said that no one involved with "I Love Lucy" had any idea that it would still be watched around the world more than a half-century later.
"In those days, we were mostly hoping we had an idea for the next show," she told the Sarasota [Fla.] Herald-Tribune in 2001.
Of course, with "I Love Lucy" the story lines had to have their share of slapstick stunts for its star. And Ball never balked at the physical gags her writers dreamed up.
"Lucy was willing to do anything if it was funny," Davis told U.S. News & World Report in 2001. "She'd black out her teeth, wear funny wigs. She never said, 'What do you mean setting fire to my nose?' And she didn't care how dangerous it was. It was very freeing to write anything in the world and know she had the nerve to do it."
Whatever the writers came up with for Lucy, they would try it out on Davis first to see if it would work and was safe to do.
"Madelyn always said she's more expendable than Lucy, but not for me she wasn't," Carroll told "CBS This Morning" during a joint appearance in 1990. "So we'd wrap Madelyn in rugs and strap her into swivel chairs and hang her out of windows, and she came through nicely. So I said, 'If it works for Madelyn, it will work for Lucy.' "
In an interview with The Times in 2007 after Carroll's death Davis said she and her writing partner were not much alike, personally — "Bob was strong on jokes and very funny" — but they shared the same comic sensibility.
"One time, we were reading a script at the table," she recalled. "I felt that a joke could be funnier if we added a certain word. I wrote it in the margin of my script, and I looked over and Bob had written the same word.