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'I Love Lucy,' 'Bewitched' director William Asher dies at 90

Sad news: I Love Lucy and Bewitched director William Asher, 90, has died of complications from Alzheimer's disease.

Asher's first episode of I Love Lucy happened to be one of the classic comedy's most famous: Lucy and Ethel working on a candy shop assembly line. ("Speed it up a little!!!")

In the 1960s and '70s, Asher directed Bewitched starring his then-wife Elizabeth Montgomery.

I interviewed Asher twice, the first time in 2001 on the 50th anniversary of I Love Lucy; the second time in 2005 to discuss Montgomery and Bewitched.

Here are both stories:

Oct. 15, 2001

50 years of loving Lucy

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Exactly 50 years ago this evening, America met the Ricardos and the Mertzes. Fittingly, Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel celebrate their golden anniversary tonight on TV Land with a restored rebroadcast of I Love Lucy 's debut episode.

"It's timeless entertainment, " said Miami ad executive Michelle Zubizarreta, 34, who grew up loving I Love Lucy . "I can still watch those reruns and laugh, even though I know what's coming. I still laugh when she puts those chocolates in her mouth."

Such is the power of Lucy . Just mention "those chocolates, " or the wine vat filled with grapes, or Vitameatavegamin, and millions the world over know what you are talking about.

Although Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley have been dead for years, their black-and-white alter egos live on. And on.

"Lucy: A Tribute" is a popular attraction at Universal Studios in Hollywood and Orlando. Lucynet.com and Lucylibrary. com are websites that promote Lucy chocolates, a $79 Lucy and Ricky doll set, stamps, plates and all sorts of memorabilia. CBS, the series' original broadcast network, plans a 50th anniversary special Nov. 11, featuring the stars' children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr.

Perhaps the greatest testimonial to I Love Lucy 's success: In 50 years, it has never been off the air.

"I'll watch an episode I may have seen a trillion times, " said Miami filmmaker Joe Cardona.

MARRIED IN 1940

Ball and Arnaz married in 1940, after they met making a movie, Too Many Girls . When they became the best-known TV couple in America, they set a standard for bicultural relationships, said Cardona, 34.

"Today, this kind of marriage in Miami is commonplace. It was such a precursor of what was to come in this community, " Cardona said. "To Cubans in South Florida, this was kind of like looking into a crystal ball."

And Ricky's rich accent? It was Arnaz himself who played it up, said Madelyn Pugh Davis, one of I Love Lucy's original writers.

"When we first started working with him, we'd write like he said things. He said it in perfect English and we wrote that. We wrote 'Take it easy.' "

But once the cameras were rolling, Arnaz would say, "take-i-tizzy, " Davis said.

Ball was the only cast member allowed to mock Arnaz's English. "Because she loved him, " Davis said.

She finds it a bit odd that a half-century later, the public is still loyal to Lucy.

"It's very flattering. It's amazing. It's unbelievable, " said Davis, who originally wrote the show with her longtime partner Bob Carroll Jr. and series creator Jess Oppenheimer. All three first worked with Ball in her 1940s radio show, My Favorite Husband .

When I Love Lucy premiered at 9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15, 1951, on CBS - in an era before the television rerun - people just figured "it was on the air and it's gone, " Davis said.

A PERFECTIONIST

Continuity didn't seem important to the writers, who struggled to crank out 39 episodes a season, Davis said.

Ball was a perfectionist who never felt comfortable until she had "rehearsed and rehearsed, " said Davis, who is in her 70s.

"When she really knew it, she could have fun with it."

Like Davis, series director William Asher never realized how long people would be hooked.

"It didn't really dawn on me until much later, " said Asher, now 80. "That was the very early days of television. We didn't know what we had."

Asher, who in 1963 married Elizabeth Montgomery and created her signature TV series, Bewitched, joined I Love Lucy in May 1952.

His very first episode: Job Switching, in which Lucy and Ethel go to work in a chocolate factory while Ricky and Fred stay home and keep house.

"I had no idea that first show was going to be among the most memorable, " Asher said. "It was a very difficult show to do. It was complicated with the girls doing the candy bit. It was extremely hard to time the conveyor belt, building up speed, stuffing candy in their mouths, their blouses."

BEHIND THE SCENES

Just as difficult, Asher said, was directing the scene in which Ricky and Fred cook dinner. "The rice overflowing. Desi put I don't know how much rice in a pot. He put in the whole package. It was really slippery. He took some falls that were not rehearsed."

It was also during his first week at work that Asher encountered Ball's temper.

"I was doing a scene without Desi, with the girls at home. It was obvious that Lucy was doing the directing behind the stage. "I said, 'Lucy, there's only one director and right now, I'm it. If you want to direct, get rid of me.'

"She burst into tears and ran off stage. Everybody else did. . . . I went back on the stage. Desi was there and he screamed at me in Spanish. I calmed him down and told him what happened. And he said I was absolutely right."

Here's Asher's take on the principals:

* Lucille Ball (1911-1989). "She was self-conscious. Not really a funny person. That kind of bothered her, I think. She needed material to be funny. But there wasn't anybody who executed it better. She really was the best."

* Desi Arnaz (1917-1986). "Desi did everything better than the others, except for the natural comedic talent Lucy had. He was very bright. When it came to a story problem, he was really able to think things out. When we had troubles, he was always the one with the answers.

"He was not known for that and that bothered him a bit - he was the Cuban singer married to the great comic."

INSISTED ON FILM

(Arnaz is credited with insisting I Love Lucy be filmed, rather than broadcast live. Later, that allowed the series to be rerun.)

* William Frawley (1887-1966). "He was what he is: perfect. He had the musical talent. He had many, many years on Broadway. All that talent he threw into the show."

Asher said Frawley studied only his own lines and often had no idea what the rest of the show was about.

* Vivian Vance (1909-1979). "A great straight person for Lucy. Also a great comic, who worked very well with Bill Frawley, even though she didn't like him. . . . She didn't like being married to an older man. But it never showed.

"She had to keep her weight up and do things she didn't want to do. It bothered her. She went on with Lucy, oh, I don't know how many years. . . . It was a very close, warm friendship."

After I Love Lucy, Ball and Vance continued being on-screen pals in The Lucy Show, from 1962-65. Vance retired that season, but the series continued with Gale Gordon as co-star until 1968. Then, Ball began a new series, Here's Lucy, co-starring Gordon and her real-life children, Lucie and Desi Jr.

Ball left weekly television in 1974. For the next decade, she continued to appear in network specials.

In 1986, at age 75, Ball attempted a much-publicized weekly TV comeback, Life With Lucy . Critics lambasted the Saturday night series, which drew poor ratings.

After eight episodes, ABC unceremoniously dumped the Queen of Television.

On April 26, 1989, Ball died at age 77 after heart surgery.

Desi Arnaz had died of lung cancer three years earlier. Even though they were divorced for 26 years, Ball and Arnaz never stopped caring for each other.

From the beginning she put her career on the line for him.

When CBS first approached Ball in 1950 about doing I Love Lucy, network executives didn't want Arnaz to play her husband.

No one would believe that the All-American redhead could be married to a Cuban bandleader, they said.

But Ball said she would do the show only if Arnaz could be her co-star, and CBS relented. In the end, it became an element of the show that made it popular, said Gregg Oppenheimer, son of Lucy creator Jess Oppenheimer.

"That's really the strength of the show, " said Oppenheimer, 50, who completed his late father's memoirs, Laughs, Luck . . . and Lucy, and is creative consultant for the show's recent release on DVD. "The chemistry between them is real. People knew they loved each other."

But Ball found it increasingly difficult to cope with Arnaz's drinking, gambling and running around with other women. Finally, after I Love Lucy and a series of Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour specials, they divorced after 20 years of marriage.

Although each would remarry (Ball to comedian Gary Morton, Arnaz to Edith Mack Hirsch, who died in 1985), they still loved each other, Asher said.

At Arnaz's funeral, Ball told Asher about their final days together. Just before Arnaz died, Ball visited him at the home they once shared in Del Mar, Calif.

"He was pretty well out of it by this time, " Asher said. "She went to leave. He said, 'Where are you going?' She said, 'I'm leaving.' He said, 'What do you mean, you're leaving? You live here.' He had flipped back to those years." She called Morton, her husband, and told him she needed to stay.

Said Asher: "She stayed there until he died."

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

June 24, 2005

As a witch, she made TV magic

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

With the twitch of her nose (actually her upper lip), Elizabeth Montgomery made it seem so easy, like magic.

"She was charming. She had comedy. She had drama, as well. She was just terribly likable, " said retired television director William Asher, who shepherded Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy and Montgomery - then his wife - in Bewitched.

Bewitched, about a sorceress named Samantha married to a mortal who disdains witchcraft, led ABC's prime-time lineup after its debut in 1964. It became the network's most successful series to date, ranking No. 2 in the ratings that season behind NBC's Bonanza.

The magic of Bewitched is about to be tested: Sony Pictures is releasing the first season of the TV show on DVD, and an updated big-screen version (opening today) starring Nicole Kidman in the role originated by the iconic Montgomery, who died 10 years ago at 62 of colon cancer.

Bewitched "has lasting communication in a time of social turbulence, " said Ron Simon, television curator at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. "It has elements that harken back to I Love Lucy. But unlike Lucy, who wanted to break into show business, you have Samantha who has magical powers that can change the suburban landscape."

Until Bewitched, Montgomery was best known as the daughter of MGM movie star Robert Montgomery. She frequently acted on his 1950s television anthology series, Robert Montgomery Presents.

After a seven-year marriage to movie star Gig Young ended in 1963, Montgomery met and quickly wed Asher, a behind-the-scenes member of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack.

"They eloped. I don't even have wedding pictures of them, " said their oldest son, Billy Asher, 40, a Los Angeles guitar builder.

William Asher, now 84 and living near Palm Springs, Calif., says that when he and Montgomery married, she was ready to give up her career.

"She wanted not to act anymore, " William Asher said. "She was pregnant [with Billy] and didn't want to do it anymore. She was too good to quit. I suggested we do a television show together."

He wrote a script for Montgomery about "the richest girl in the world" who falls in love with an ordinary guy. Asher gave the script to Columbia Pictures execs who said it reminded them of another property being considered for Broadway star Tammy Grimes.

"It was the script of Bewitched, " William Asher said. "I liked that better and so did Liz, so we did that."

Asher helped assemble one of TV's most memorable ensembles including Citizen Kane co-star Agnes Moorehead as Samantha's mother, Endora, and comedian Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur.

Dick York was cast as Samantha's mortal husband, Darrin Stephens. York, who died in 1992, stayed with the show for five years, until illness forced him to quit. Bewitched was still a hit, though, and Asher simply recast the part.

"I decided to go ahead and do it without any explanation - nothing to the fans, " Asher said. When season six began, actor Dick Sargent was Darrin.

As the Asher family grew, so did the Stephens family.

When Montgomery became pregnant with son Robert in 1965, Samantha became pregnant with daughter Tabitha. Four years later, Montgomery gave birth to daughter Rebecca and Samantha had son Adam.

Bewitched was so popular it spawned a 1965 copycat comedy, NBC's I Dream of Jeannie.

"Elizabeth was furious, " William Asher said. "She didn't like it at all. It didn't bother me. It was a good show. But we went eight years, they went five."

After Bewitched ended in 1972, Montgomery and Asher divorced amicably. She later married actor Robert Foxworth, who in the 1980s starred on TV's Falcon Crest.

Montgomery abandoned comedy in favor of dramatic movies of the week. Much of her later work was tied to political activism, Billy Asher said.

For her post-Bewitched TV comeback in 1974, Montgomery chose to star as a rape victim.

"She was very aware of what was going on around her in the world, " Billy Asher said. "A Case of Rape was a bit of material to open people's eyes of what was going on in the courtrooms and what women went through."

Montgomery also became a champion of gay rights. "A lot of her friends, people in the industry were gay. Paul Lynde, " her son said.

Soon after Dick Sargent publicly came out of the closet, the two former Bewitched stars appeared as grand marshals of the 1992 Los Angeles gay pride parade. Sargent died two years later of prostate cancer.

In 1994, Montgomery assumed the role of Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan for the TV-movie The Corpse Had a Familiar Face. A year later, she filmed a sequel, Deadline for Murder: From the Files of Edna Buchanan.

During filming, Montgomery suddenly became ill. Within weeks, she was dead.

William Asher, who has remarried twice since their divorce, still gets choked up when talking about Montgomery. He planned to attend this week's world premiere of the movie Bewitched, but said he had nothing to do with making it or the DVD series release.

"I made a very bad deal, " said Asher, who also wrote and produced TV's Bewitched. "We have nothing to do financially with the show. I should have made a different deal and I didn't."

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