Madelyn Pugh Davis dies at 90; ‘I Love Lucy’ writer
Madelyn Pugh Davis, who with her writing partner Bob Carroll Jr. made television history in the 1950s writing Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s landmark situation comedy “I Love Lucy,” has died. She was 90.
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.
“So we thought alike and thought the same things were funny.”
One thing she was proud of was that “Bob and I never had any arguments, which with teams is very rare. Neither one of us liked fussing and fighting.”
After writing “I Love Lucy”, Davis and Carroll wrote for “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,” “The Lucy Show” and “Here’s Lucy.” They also were on board for Ball’s short-lived comeback series, “Life with Lucy,” in 1986. And they wrote the story for “Yours, Mine and Ours,” the 1968 family comedy starring Ball and Henry Fonda.
Davis and Carroll received two Emmy nominations for their work on “I Love Lucy” and one for “Here’s Lucy.”
Among their other TV credits: They created “The Mothers-in-Law,” a 1967-69 sitcom starring Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard and were producers on the 1970s and ‘80s sitcom “Alice.”
Born Madelyn Pugh in Indianapolis on March, 15, 1921, Davis knew at an early age that she wanted to become a writer.
She majored in journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington. But, unable to land a newspaper job after graduating in 1942, she found work as a staff writer at WIRE, the NBC radio station in Indianapolis, where she wrote commercials and patter for the disc jockeys, among other things.
A year later she headed to Los Angeles and immediately was hired as a staff writer for the NBC radio network. Six months after that, in 1944, she was hired by CBS, which owned radio station KNX and had a large staff of writers.
Davis was the second woman hired on the writing staff — Kathleen Hite was the first. As Davis wrote in “Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America’s Leading Lady of Comedy,” her 2005 memoir” “No one actually wanted to hire women in 1944,” but with so many men away at war, “what else was there?”
During her third year at KNX, she was teamed with Carroll to write a half-hour show about a newlywed couple, “The Couple Next Door.”
After working on that show, Davis and Carroll wrote comedy sketches for a half-hour Pacific Network show called “It’s a Great Life,” starring a young comedian named Steve Allen. They left the Allen show to write for Ball on “My Favorite Husband.”
In 1992, Carroll and Davis received the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for achievement in television writing from the Writers Guild of America. And in 2001, the UCLA Film School honored them for lifetime achievement in television writing.
Davis, whose first marriage to producer Quinn Martin ended in divorce, married Dr. Richard Davis, her former college sweetheart, in 1964. He died in 2009.
In addition to her son, Davis is survived by four stepchildren, Brian Davis, Charlotte Davis, Lisa Davis and Ned Davis; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Services will be private.
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