Nearly everyone knows about Lucille Ball and her revolutionary sitcom I Love Lucy. Fewer know that she owned and ran her own studio, Desilu. Even fewer people know that if it was not for Lucy. Star Trek might not have made it to the air at all.
In 1963 Gene Roddenberry was producing the drama The Lieutenant for MGM. It was during this period that he conceived an idea for a show which would follow the adventures of a crew aboard a spaceship exploring the galaxy. Called Star Trek, Mr. Roddenberry pitched the idea to MGM. The executives at MGM thought it was an interesting concept, but had serious doubts that it could be produced on a weekly basis within a reasonable television budget. Gene Roddenberry eventually found a buyer for Star Trek in the form of Desilu Productions, the company owned and run by Lucille Ball. Desilu had not only produced I Love Lucy, but had also produced such classic series as Our Miss Brooks, December Bride, and The Untouchables. In 1964, however, Desilu had hit hard times. The only show it had on the air was The Lucy Show. Most of its money came from renting its property out to other production companies, such as Danny Thomas Enterprises (who produced Make Room for Daddy and The Andy Griffith Show). With only one show on the air, Desilu was willing to take a gamble on Star Trek.
Unfortunately, Star Trek would not have a smooth path making it on the air. Desilu had a first refusal agreement with CBS, so it was that network which Gene Roddenberry and Oscar Katz, Desilu's vice president in charge of programming, approached first. The CBS programming executives politely listened to the pitch Gene Roddenberry gave for a show he described as "Wagon Train to the Stars." In the end, however, they passed on Star Trek, stating that they already had another science fiction series in the works (Lost in Space).
Having been turned down by CBS, Gene Roddenberry and Desilu then approached NBC. Fortunately for Mr. Roddenberry and Desilu Productions, NBC expressed interest in Star Trek and gave the go ahead for production of a pilot episode. It was in February 1965 that NBC's programming executives viewed the pilot episode of Star Trek, "The Cage." The NBC programming executives were very impressed with "The Cage." They thought it was a very well done work of science fiction. Unfortunately, they also felt that the pilot was "too cerebral," "too intellectual," and lacked enough action for a weekly series. While they ultimately rejected "The Cage," the NBC executives also took the unprecedented step of commissioning a second pilot for Star Trek.
It is difficult to say whyNBC approved a second pilot for Star Trek. One reason could be that Mort Werner, then Vice President in Charge of Programming, was very impressed with "The Cage." This is quite possible, given the fact that Mr. Werner was known to take risks on new and innovative shows. It was during his tenure as Vice President in Charge of Programming that NBC aired such shows as Bonanza, I Spy and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. When this is taken into account, it would not be surprising if Mr. Werner had approved another pilot for Star Trek.
That having been said, another reason that NBC approved a second pilot for Star Trek may have been Lucille Ball herself. It is fairly well known among Trekkies, if not the general public, that Lucy supported both Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek. There is a story that when "The Cage" was rejected, Lucy used her influence as the most powerful woman in television (indeed, one of the most powerful people in television at the time) to persuade NBC to commission a second pilot. Lending credence to this story are statements made by Richard Arnold, Gene Roddenberry's long time assistant that Lucille Ball used her own development money to finance the second pilot of Star Trek. Here it must be pointed that it is well known that Lucy intervened on behalf of another show. It was largely because of pressure from Lucille Ball that CBS purchased the detective drama Mannix (the last show produced by Desilu). While the story that Lucy pressured NBC into the second pilot for Star Trek could be apocryphal, it is quite possible.
Regardless of whether Lucille Ball was the primary reason NBC commissioned the second pilot of Star Trek or not, we know that a second pilot ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") was made and that NBC ultimately bought the series. We also know from Herb Solow (who succeeded Oscar Katz as Vice President in Charge of Production at Desilu), Robert Justman (one of the producers on Star Trek), and Lucy's own daughter, Lucie Arnaz, that Lucille Ball did save Star Trek from her own Desilu executives. Argyle Nelson, head of production and studio operations, and Edwin Holly, senior vice president, estimated that both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible would cost $225,000 apiece a week to produce, with weekly revenues of $160,000 apiece. In other words, Desilu would lose money on both shows. In fact, Ed Holly was so opposed to both shows that he told Lucy that they would have to sell the studio if they produced the pilots for both shows.
Fortunately, Herb Solow, who had been Oscar Katz's assistant prior to taking over Mr. Katz's position, supported both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. It was Herb Solow who persuaded Lucille Ball to go forward with both shows. Mr. Solow did so by invoking Desilu's past. He pointed out that in producing both shows Desilu could reclaim its prestige and its position as a major player in the television industry. Lucy consented and gave the go ahead for both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible.
A simpler version of Lucy's showdown with her fellow executives at Desilu was told by her daughter, Lucie Arnaz, at William Shatner's induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. When her fellow executives at Desilu told her that Star Trek and Mission: Impossible were too expensive to produce and production on both shows should cease, Lucy simply replied, "No, I like 'em!" According to Miss Arnaz, Lucy generally listened to her fellow executives at Desilu when it came to financial matters, but she remained firm that both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible would continue.
While Lucille Ball was not involved in the day to day production of Star Trek, then, she used her considerable clout to insure that it would go on the air. The reason is perhaps Lucille Ball was not simply a great performer and actress, but a very shrewd studio head when it came to knowing what would be popular. Alongside former husband Desi Arnaz, Lucy had approved the production of such legendary shows as Our Miss Brooks and The Untouchables. Her own show, The Lucy Show, was a hit. Lucy then knew that both Mission: Impossible and Star Trek would be hits. And in the end she was right. Mission: Impossible would become one of the highest rated shows on television in its third season. Star Trek would take a bit longer. Constantly at the bottom of the ratings during its initial run, Star Trek became a phenomenon in reruns. In fact, it may be the most successful hour long show of all time. Its success in syndication may only be surpassed by Gilligan's Island and, the very first Desilu show, I Love Lucy. Both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible would become successful franchises for Paramount Pictures.
Sadly, it would be while both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible were on the air that Lucy would sell Desilu. By 1967 Lucy was tired of her chores as a a studio head, while her advisors at the studio argued that it would be best if she sold Desilu. When Gulf+Western, who had only recently purchased Paramount Pictures, approached Desilu with an offer, Lucy reluctantly accepted. In February 1967, then, Desilu was bought by Gulf+Western. In December of that year it was merged with Paramount Pictures and renamed Paramount Television. This ended Lucy's association with Star Trek. In the end she had only been associated with the series during its development and the first part of its first season. Despite this, she had a greater impact on the show than anyone except Gene Roddenberry and its cast and crew. Quite simply, as the head of Desilu, the studio that took a risk on a show even MGM thought could not be done, Lucy insured that Star Trek would make it to the air. One has to wonder had she not sold Desilu that it would not have lasted longer than it did.