One of the female pioneers of the sitcom world has died. Madelyn Pugh Davis, one of the few main writers of I Love Lucy, died last night at the age of 90 years old. She passed away in her Bel Air home following a brief illness.
Born in 1921, Davis was the editor of the Shortridge High School newspaper in Indianapolis, Indiana. She went on to graduate from the Indiana University School of Journalism in 1942. Her first professional writing job was writing radio spots for WIRE, a local radio station. After her family moved to California, she got regular jobs writing for radio, first for NBC and then CBS. In the early days of her career, Davis was often the only female writer for a show.
Davis was working as a staff writer for CBS Radio in Hollywood when she met her writing partner, Bob Carroll, Jr. The partnership would last for more than 50 years, until his death in 2007. Together, they wrote more than 400 TV episodes and at least as many radio shows during their time together.
The duo were writing for The Steve Allen Show when they became interested in writing for My Favorite Husband, a radio show starring Lucille Ball. So that they’d have time to write a spec script, they paid Allen to write his own program for a week. It was a good investment because they were hired by producer Jess Oppenheimer and ended up writing for My Favorite Husband for more than two years.
Davis and Carroll went on to author a vaudeville-style act for Lucille Ball and her husband, bandleader Desi Arnaz. This became the basis for the I Love Lucy pilot. When the show became a series, Oppenheimer, Davis, and Carroll wrote 39 episodes each year for the first four seasons. Oppenheimer left after that and Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf wrote with the duo beginning in year five and continued with the show until the end.
Davis would often test out the crazy Lucy stunts, to make sure they worked and to protect Ball. In 2005, Davis said, “The worst one was trying out a unicycle. I ran into a wall and hit my head. We decided it was too dangerous for Lucy.”
Davis and Carroll never won an Emmy for their work on I Love Lucy but were nominated three times. Arnaz and Ball trusted the duo and they went on to work on many projects for them. They wrote multiple episodes for all of Ball’s later series; The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, and Ball’s ill-fated final series, Life With Lucy.
Aside from the various Lucy shows, Davis and Carroll also wrote for The Paul Lynde Show, Dorothy, Those Whiting Girls, and The Tom Ewell Show. They created The Mothers-in-Law and produced Alice for 92 episodes of the sitcom’s nine year run.
Davis was married two times. Her first husband was legendary TV producer Quinn Martin and they had a son together, Michael Quinn Martin. That union ended in divorce. She later married Dr. Richard M. Davis.
In 1992 the Writers’ Guild of America awarded Davis and Carroll its Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Achievement. Davis was the Los Angeles Times “Woman of the Year” in 1957 and was the recipient of the “Women in Film” award in 1996. In 2005, Davis released her memoirs called Laughing with Lucy and included Carroll as a contributor of the book.
Of I Love Lucy’s enduring popularity, Davis credits the everyday situations they used to start each episode. “We never dreamed of anything like syndication, so we didn’t plan for this, couldn’t plan for this But we avoided references to present-day events or people because New York was doing live TV, we were on film and these references would look stale by the time viewers saw the show. Instead, we looked for common, everyday things that had happened to us or our families, or stories our friends had told us.”
Madelyn Pugh Davis is survived by her son Michael, four stepchildren, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Here’s a 1990 interview with Davis and Carroll that was done as part of the first broadcast of the I Love Lucy pilot.
What do you think? What are your favorite memories of the work of Madelyn Pugh Davis?