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How Lucille Ball saved 'Star Trek'

Gene Roddenberry’s quirky little sci-fi drama found an unlikely champion in comedy queen Lucille Ball. Even after production costs ballooned and the first pilot bombed, the famous redhead steadfastly stood behind the show.

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This article originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly’s Ultimate Guide to Star Trek.

Lucille Ball, the undisputed queen of television in the 1950s and 1960s, had already earned a place in television history with her immortal 1951-57 sitcom I Love Lucy. The financial success of her blockbuster hit, costarring then-husband Desi Arnaz, allowed the couple to buy the former RKO Studios adjacent to the Paramount lot in Los Angeles in 1957.

They named their new company Desilu Productions, and it quickly became one of the largest independent production companies in Hollywood. Lucy had a good eye for spotting proposals with mass appeal, and their company was responsible for producing or filming series like The Andy Griffith Show, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and The Dick Van Dyke Show. When Lucy bought her ex-husband’s share of the firm in 1962 (they divorced in 1960), she became the most powerful woman in television.

While many series were being shot at Desilu, the studio was in dire need of original programming of its own following the end of The Untouchables in 1963. Herbert Solow, hired to help locate new projects for the studio, brought two notable proposals to Desilu in 1964. One was Mission: Impossible; the other was Roddenberry’s quirky sci-fi idea. When Lucy’s longtime network CBS said no to Trek, Solow and Roddenberry took it to NBC. Science fiction was alien to the network’s schedule, but it ordered a pilot.

According to Solow in Marc Cushman’s history These Are the Voyages, Lucy initially thought Star Trek was about traveling USO performers. But her support for the show was necessary as it became clear how expensive the pilot would be. Lucy overruled her board of directors to make sure the episode was produced.

Her support was even more critical when NBC rejected the initial pilot, “The Cage,” in early 1965. NBC ordered a second pilot—introducing Shatner as Kirk—which Lucy agreed to help finance, again over her board’s objections. Star Trek made the fall 1966 schedule, and the pilot won its time slot (though it later suffered in the ratings). “If it were not for Lucy,” former studio executive Ed Holly told Desilu historian Coyne Steven Sanders, “there would be no Star Trek today.”

Star Trek had been on the air less than a year when Lucy sold her studio to the new owner of Paramount Pictures, and it later became Paramount Television. (It’s now part of CBS Television Studios, connected to the same network that gave Lucy her start.) Meanwhile, the executive who bought Star Trek for NBC, Grant Tinker, went on to found the next big husband-wife TV-production company with his famous spouse, Mary Tyler Moore.

 

Ahead of the release of Star Trek Beyond and in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Star Trek: The Original Series, EW has an inside look at the beloved franchise. Entertainment Weekly‘s Ultimate Guide to Star Trek is on sale now.