Here’s How Desi Arnaz Really Died & What the Last Words He Told Lucille Ball Were

Desi Arnaz
Photo: AP Images. Everett Collection.

If you’re still mourning his loss, you may have questions about how Desi Arnaz died and what caused his death. He had long been divorced from his ex-wife, Lucille Ball, but the last words he said to her were still significant.

Arnaz—whose full name is Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha, III—was born on March 2, 1917, in Santiago de Cuba in Cuba. After the Cuban Revolution of 1933, Arnaz’s father, Alberto Arnaz, was jailed and their home was confiscated. Alberto was released after six months when his brother-in-law, Alberto de Acha, intervened. Arnaz’s family then fled to Miami, where the I Love Lucy star attended St. Patrick Catholic High School in Miami Beach. After he graduated from high school, Arnaz joined a band called the Siboney Septet. The success of the group led Arnaz to start his own band, the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, which became a hit in New York City’s club scene. The band also led Arnaz to be cast in his first Broadway musical, Too Many Girls, in 1939. In 1940, Arnaz starred in the movie version of the show, alongside his future wife, Lucille Ball. The couple fell in love and married on November 30, 1940.

In 1948, Ball was cast as Liz Cooper, a wacky wife in the CBS Radio comedy show, My Favorite Husband. The show ran for 148 episodes. After the success of My Favorite Husband, Ball was asked by CBS to develop it for television, which she agreed if she could work with her real-life husband, Arnaz. Unimpressed by the pilot episode, CBS turned down a show with Ball and Arnaz, which led them to hit the road as a vaudeville act in which Ball played a zany housewife who tried to get into her husband’s show. After the success of the tour, CBS greenlit I Love Lucy, which went on to run for more than 100 episodes and be one of the most-watched shows in TV history.

Ball and Arnaz’s marriage was portrayed in the 2021 movie Being the Ricardos, in which Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem starred as the couple. The film was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. In an interview with Extra in December 2021, Kidman opened up about why she wanted to play Ball. “That is something that Javier and I want to honor,” she said. “But at the same time, you want it to be a true depiction of who they are so that people watching it go, ‘Oh, OK…’ Aaron’s really gone in there, he’s done them proud, but at the same time he has been very true to their spirits… They’re compelling, fascinating… people and at the same time—they are human.”

The story of Ball and Arnaz’s relationship was told in Amy Poehler’s 2022 documentary, Lucy and Desi, which dove into who they were as people in addition to Hollywood stars. “I knew about them as performers, not as people,” Poehler told Variety in 2021. “These two incredible outsiders worked hard to become powerful, influential figures at a time when women and immigrants were not running the system. But at the end of the day, the attempt was to tell a love story: Their long journey of falling in love, working, and staying in love with each other through thick and thin was echoed in their show.” Poehler continued, “And then to watch America’s most powerful couple — they created the idea of a power couple — split up after being on TV, as this example of how things will always be OK, it was interesting. So much is made of their work and comedy, and it should be. But I also think it is also an equal triumph to have a relationship that was the kind that they had. It is hard to maintain a working relationship, as well as a relationship with someone you love and is your partner in raising kids.”

Arnaz died December 2, 1986, three years before Ball passed of a heart attack. So how did Desi Arnaz die and what was his cause of death? Read on for what we know about how Arnaz passed and what the last words Ball said to him were.

Lucille Ball

Image: Everett Collection.

How did Desi Arnaz die?

Desi Arnaz died on December 2, 1986, of complications related to lung cancer. He was 69. Arnaz—a lifelong smoker who was diagnosed with lung cancer just months before his death—died in his home in Del Mar, a suburb of San Diego, California, according to The Los Angeles Times. His daughter, Lucie Arnaz, told ABC at the time that her father died in her arms. “I can say that he died with me in my arms and that we loved him so much. I can tell you not to smoke, and I can tell you that I would like to be remembered as the man who was responsible for Lucy. The ‘I’ in I Love Lucy. And that he loved all of you very much,” she said. According to The Los Angeles Times, Arnaz’s son, Desi Jr., wasn’t with him when he died but he was en route.

Arnaz’s doctor, Charles Campbell, also confirmed to The Los Angeles Times at the time that the actor died from lung cancer caused by his history of smoking. “It was from smoking those Cuban cigars; that’s the truth,” he said. In a statement from her office, Ball expressed how “grateful” she was that Arnaz’s “suffering” was over after his cancer diagnosis. “Mr. Arnaz had been ill with cancer for many months, and my family and I have been praying for his release from this terrible ordeal. Desi died early this morning in his daughter’s arms. Our relationship had remained very close, very amiable, over the years, and now I’m grateful to God that Desi’s suffering is over,” a statement from her office read.

Arnaz’s death came five years after he was hospitalized in 1981 from a diverticulitis, an inflammation of the intestinal tract, for which he had undergone four surgical operations in 1969 and 1970.

Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball

Image: Everett Collection.

What were Desi Arnaz’s last words to Lucille Ball?

What were Desi Arnaz’s last words to Lucille Ball? According to the 2011 book, Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
, Arnaz and Ball had their last conversation two days before he died. Their final phone call was on what would’ve been their 46th wedding anniversary, November 30, 1989. “I just shut the door and let them have their time together,” Lucie said in the book. “I started them off, like two kids on a first date.” According to Lucie, Arnaz’s last words to Ball were to say he loved her and he wished her well with an upcoming television appearance. Lucie also told the book’s writers that she had to hold the phone to her father’s ear for him because he had become so weak. “I had to hold the phone,” she said.. “I couldn’t get out of the room. And he said, ‘I love you, too, honey. Good luck with your show.’”

After his death, Arnaz was cremated and his ashes were scattered. His funeral was held at Solana Beach, California, on December 4, 1986, according to the Associated Press. The publication reported that 100 people attended the private service, including Ball, who was seen weeping. (Arnaz’s second wife, Edith Mack Hirsch (whom he married in 1963, three years after his divorce from Ball), passed a year before his death in 1985.) At Arnaz’s funeral was a picture of him at a young man, which was placed at the center of a sanctuary in the St. James Roman Catholic Church.

″I will never ever, ever forget his tremendous help to me. and I speak not only about what he did for me but what he has done for the entire industry,″ actor Danny Thomas said in a eulogy. ″Television owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude and no one but no one has ever come close to the kind of TV Desi brought with Lucy to this industry.”

During the funeral, Ball remembered Arnaz as a “great, great showman.” ″Just look at the stuff he’s done over the years,″ she sad. ″It’s on three or four times every day. He was a great part of our innovation in this business.″ As other eulogies were delivered, Ball gripped her second husband, Gary Morton’s hand. Beside her were her and Arnaz’s two children, Lucie and Desi Jr. There wasn’t a coffin at the funeral because Arnaz was later cremated.

Lucy and Desi is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. Here’s how to watch it for free.

"Love, Lucy" by Lucille Ball

Image: Courtesy of Berkeley.

Love, Lucy by Lucille Ball

For more about Lucille Ball, read her autobiography, Love, Lucy. The book—which was published after Ball’s death in 1989 and is her only autobiography—follows the comedienne’s career and life, from her childhood in Jamestown, New York, to her dreams on Broadway and her marriage with Desi Arnaz. Written by Ball herself, the autobiography also includes intimate memories of her and Desi’s children, what led to the end of their marriage and how Ball found love again with her second husband, Gary Morton. Told in her own words, Love, Lucy is a must-read for anyone who loves Lucy.

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