Oppemheimer with Vivian Vance, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at an I Love Lucy press party, 1955.
|Born||Jessurun James Oppenheimer
November 11, 1913
San Francisco, U.S.
|Died||December 27, 1988
Los Angeles, U.S.
|Occupation||radio, television writer, producer, director, and producer, head writer of I Love Lucy|
|Spouse(s)||Estelle Weiss, 1947-1988, his death|
|Children||Gregg Oppenheimer, Jo Oppenheimer Davis|
Lucille Ball called Oppenheimer “the brains” behind I Love Lucy. As series creator, producer, and head writer, “Jess was the creative force behind the ‘Lucy’ show,” according to I Love Lucy director William Asher. “He was the field general. Jess presided over all the meetings, and ran the whole show. He was very sharp.”
Early life and career
He was born in San Francisco, where in the third grade he was chosen as a subject of the landmark study of gifted children by Stanford University professor Lewis Terman. Terman's assistant noted in Oppenheimer's file, "I could detect no signs of a sense of humor.
During his junior year at Stanford during the 1930s, Oppenheimer visited the studios of radio station KFRC in San Francisco, and soon started spending all his spare time there. He made his broadcast debut performing a comedy sketch he'd written on the station's popular coast-to-coast comedy-variety radio program, "Blue Monday Jamboree."
In 1936, Oppenheimer moved to Hollywood, where in his first week he was hired as a comedy writer on Fred Astaire's radio program. When Astaire's show ended the following year, Oppenheimer landed a job as a radio gag writer for Jack Benny. He later wrote comedy for such other variety programs as the "Chase and Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy," "The Lifebuoy Program starring Al Jolson," "The Gulf Screen Guild Show," and "The Rudy Vallee Program." As a staff writer on those programs, Oppenheimer wrote sketch comedy for many Hollywood stars, including Fred Allen, Tallulah Bankhead, Charles Boyer, Fanny Brice, George Burns and Gracie Allen, James Cagney, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, William Powell, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, and Spencer Tracy.
With the advent of World War II, Oppenheimer joined the United States Coast Guard and was posted to the Public Relations Department. The sailor at the next desk was a young agent named Ray Stark, the son-in-law of the renowned comedienne and musical star, Fanny Brice. Stark immediately hired Oppenheimer to write for the popular radio program, The Baby Snooks Show, which starred Fanny Brice as a wise-beyond-her-years little girl who constantly drove her daddy crazy.
I Love Lucy and other credits
In 1948, shortly after The Baby Snooks Show went off the air, CBS asked Oppenheimer to write a script for a new unsponsored radio sitcom, My Favorite Husband, starring Lucille Ball. In the handful of episodes that had already aired, Ball had played "Liz Cugat," a "gay, sophisticated," socialite wife of a bank vice president.
Oppenheimer decided to make her radio character more like Baby Snooks: less sophisticated, more childlike, scheming, and impulsive—taking Lucy and the show in a new direction, with broad, slapstick comedy. The show was a huge success. CBS quickly signed Oppenheimer as the show's head writer, producer, and director. Oppenheimer was hesitant to accept the position after being warned by his friends against working with Ball, but he decided to accept anyway after seeing her brilliant performance of his script. Soon the series gained both a sponsor and a much larger audience. My Favorite Husband also marked the beginning of Oppenheimer's successful collaboration with I Love Lucy writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr.
In December 1950, when CBS agreed to produce a TV pilot starring Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, Lucy insisted on Oppenheimer to head up the project. But with a completed pilot due in just a few weeks, nobody knew what the series should be about. "Why don't we do a show," Oppenheimer suggested, "about a middle-class working stiff who works very hard at his job as a bandleader, and likes nothing better than to come home at night and relax with his wife, who doesn't like staying home and is dying to get into show business herself?" He decided to call the show I Love Lucy.
He remained as producer and head writer of the series for five of its six seasons, writing the pilot and 153 episodes with Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. (joined in the fall of 1955 by writers Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf). Oppenheimer appeared on the show in Episode #6 ("The Audition"), as one of the three unimpressed TV executives for whom Ricky performs at the Tropicana.
Oppenheimer left I Love Lucy in 1956 to take an executive post at NBC, where he produced a series of TV specials, including the "General Motors 50th Anniversary Show" (1957), "Ford Startime" (1959), "The Ten Commandments" (1959), and the "1959 Emmy Awards." Oppenheimer and Ball were reunited in 1962 when he produced "The Danny Kaye Show with Lucille Ball," which was nominated as "Program of the Year" by the TV Academy, and again in 1964, when he executive produced "The Lucille Ball Comedy Hour."
Works after I Love Lucy
During the 1960s, Oppenheimer created and produced three short-lived sitcoms: Angel, starring Annie Fargé and Marshall Thompson), Glynis (fall of 1963) (starring Glynis Johns), and The Debbie Reynolds Show (1969–70). His other TV credits included writing The United States Steel Hour, producing Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, and writing, producing, and directing a portion of the 1967-68 season of Get Smart, starring Don Adams. Oppenheimer received two Emmy Awards and five Emmy nominations, a Sylvania Award, and the Writers' Guild of America's Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Achievement.
Oppenheimer was also an inventor, holding 18 patents covering a variety of devices, including the in-the-lens teleprompter used by everyone from news anchors to presidents (first used on television by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, for a filmed Philip Morris cigarette commercial which aired on I Love Lucy on December 14, 1953).
Personal life and family
Oppenheimer met his future wife, Estelle Weiss, in 1942 while she was working as the manager of the Popular Records Department at Wallichs Music City, on the corner of Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. After a long courtship, the two married on August 5, 1947. 13 months later, their daughter, Joanne, was born. Their son, Gregg, was born in 1951.
Death and legacy
Oppenheimer died of heart failure on December 27, 1988, following complications after being hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for intestinal surgery. He was survived by his wife, Estelle, his son, Gregg, and his daughter, Jo Oppenheimer Davis. His wife, Estelle, died on December 23, 2007 at the age of 85; she was survived by their children, two grandchildren, and three great grandchildren. Upon his death Lucille Ball called Jess Oppenheimer "a true genius," adding, "I owe so much to his creativity and his friendship." His memoir, Laughs, Luck...and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time, was completed after his death by his son, Gregg Oppenheimer.
- Broadcasting, Broadcasting Publications, 1981, p. 306.
- "Jess Oppenheimer, 75, a Creator and a Producer of 'I Love Lucy'", "New York Times", December 30, 1988
- "Lucy and the Gifted Child", Time magazine, June 28, 1954
- I Love Lucy: Celebrating Fifty Years of Love and Laughter, by Elisabeth Edwards, pp. 252-253
- Terman's Kids: The Groundbreaking study of How the Gifted Grow Up, by Joel N. Shurkin, p. 54
- Laughs, Luck...and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time, by Jess Oppenheimer with Gregg Oppenheimer, p. 117
- "Still in Love with Lucy", by Thomas Watson, LucyFan.com article, Sunday, December 30, 2007, accessed July 6, 2013
- "Death reference for Estelle Oppenheimer" at jewishjournal.com, January 25, 2008, accessed July 6, 2013
- ISBN 0-8156-0584-6
- Laughs, Luck...and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time, by Jess Oppenheimer with Gregg Oppenheimer, pp. xiii-xiv