The ugly truth about making it big in television

Rob Long reveals a showbiz secret that we didn't know we already knew.

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One of the earliest television comedies was I Love Lucy. It screened in America in the 1950s – in the medium’s early post-radio days – and it inspired television comedies all over the world for the next 50 years.

It was a pretty simple set-up: Lucille Ball played a daffy, overenthusiastic New York City housewife of Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban-American nightclub singer and big band leader. In the series, her best friend and neighbour was played by Vivian Vance. Ball and Vance were quite close in age, though on the show they were supposed to be 10 or even 20 years apart. Ball was in her forties during the run of the series, but was, as we say in Hollywood, “playing much younger”.

The trick to playing younger or thinner is always to appear with performers who look older or fatter. This isn’t really a trade secret. When people who are not in show business – who we in Hollywood call “the civilians” – gather around for a group photograph, everyone naturally wants their face to be closest to the oldest or fattest face in the photograph. Civilians and movie stars alike understand the power of comparisons. Want to look really attractive? Go stand next to the least attractive person you can find.

During the production run of I Love Lucy, the rumour was that Vance had stipulated in her contract something called a “weight agreement”. In other words, she was contractually obliged to stay noticeably plumper than the star, Ball.

But it most assuredly didn’t stop there. Vance was also dressed – at the insistence of the producers, one of whom was (you guessed it) Ball – in older and less chic styles. Her outfits were old-lady frocks. Her hair was left grey. They even gave her an old husband.

It’s impossible to know for certain if all of this was contractually specified, but the next time you see an old episode of I Love Lucy floating around the television – and it remains the most perennially rerun series worldwide – watch for a few minutes and compare the youthful, elegant and rather glamorous look of Ball with the frumpier, grey-haired slouch of her sidekick, Vance, and then remind yourself that the two women were only two years apart in age.

That kind of thing doesn’t happen by accident.

Ball, of course, was a professional. She would probably explain, if it ever came up, that a television ensemble is a delicate and complicated thing. You’re never really sure how the chemistry works, or doesn’t. A hit show is like lightning in a bottle – it can’t be re-engineered or tinkered with. Think about your favourite series and then try to recast one of the main characters in your mind. It just doesn’t work. So Ball could argue that she wasn’t being a heartless diva by keeping her co-star old and fat, she was merely trying to preserve the core relationships of her series.

Did Vance complain? Perhaps, but it’s more likely that she was just as professional as her boss and knew that delivering a consistent product to the audience was worth real money. Better to be employed on a hit television show than fit into a dress four sizes smaller.

Not long ago, a very popular children’s series was faced with a similar problem. It was a “buddy show” – what we sometimes call a “two-hander” – about young male friends. One was supposed to be nerdy and awkward and fat. The other was supposed to be handsome and sleek and popular. Despite their differences, they were friends. Each episode was basically the same. The fat kid had troubles with school or family or girls. The cool kid bailed him out with good advice and loyal friendship.

But as anyone who either has children or was, at one point, a child can tell you, kids grow up in unexpected ways. Adolescence has a big effect on the physical appearance of almost everyone, and these two actors were no exception. In an almost too-perfect karmic reversal, the awkward and fat young actor blossomed over the years into a tall and handsome leading man. As he got more attractive, the other actor started to lose it, as often happens when “cool” kids go through the hormonally chaotic teenage years. By the fourth year of the series, it was impossible to do the same show. Audi- ences simply couldn’t accept that the attractive young man had romantic troubles that only his now weird-looking friend could solve.

The formerly handsome young man developed into a sullen and dark personality. The former ugly duckling had become a swan and wasn’t going to let anyone forget it. The show was over.

I Love Lucy ran for a decade and remains a favourite. It was successful enough that its owner and producer, Ball, bought her own studio and produced other mega-hits such as Star Trek. When she died in 1989, Ball was one of the richest and most successful Hollywood personalities ever.

No one remembers the name of the show with the two friends, one fat and awkward and one sleek and handsome.

Sometimes the smartest financial move you can make in Hollywood is keeping your co-star fat, unattractive and employed.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl