- Birth nameJessurun James Oppenheimer
- Jess Oppenheimer (November 11, 1913 - December 27, 1988)
Lucille Ball called Jess Oppenheimer "the brains" behind I Love Lucy (1951), and with good reason. As series creator, producer, and head writer, "Jess was the creative force behind the 'Lucy' show," confirms director William Asher. "He was the field general. Jess presided over all the meetings, and ran the whole show. He was very sharp."
Born in San Francisco on November 11, 1913, Oppenheimer attended Stanford University in the 1930s, during radio's "golden age." Drawn to radio comedy, he wangled a visit during his junior year to the studios of radio station KFRC in San Francisco, where he soon found himself spending every spare moment. He penned a comedy routine and quickly made his broadcasting debut, performing his own material coast-to-coast on the station's popular comedy-variety program, "Blue Monday Jamboree."
In 1936, he made the short hop down to Hollywood, where, through a combination of skill and impeccable timing, he managed to land a writing job on the Fred Astaire radio program on his first day in town. When Astaire left the airwaves a year later, Oppenheimer became a gag writer for Jack Benny, then tackled comedy writing chores 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 of Hollywood's biggest 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 promptly posted to the Public Relations Department. The sailor at the next desk was a young agent named Ray Stark, who happened to be the son-in-law of the renowned comedienne and musical star, Fanny Brice. Stark promptly hired Oppenheimer to write for the popular radio program, "Baby Snooks," which starred Fanny Brice as a wise-beyond-her-years little girl who constantly drove her daddy crazy. It marked Oppenheimer's introduction to the sitcom form. During his six years on the show, he learned the ins and outs of plotting character-driven comedy.
In 1948, shortly after "Baby Snooks" went off the air, Oppenheimer accepted an assignment from CBS to write a script for the network's struggling new radio sitcom, "My Favorite Husband." The show starred Lucille Ball, one of the few stars in Hollywood with whom he had never worked. In the handful of episodes that had already aired, Ball had played "Liz Cugat," a "gay, sophisticated," socialite wife of a bank vice president--quite the opposite of the "Snooks" character Oppenheimer had been writing.
After watching Lucille Ball at rehearsal, Oppenheimer decided to make her character more like Snooks: less sophisticated, more childlike, scheming, and impulsive--taking Lucy and the show in a new direction, with broad, slapstick comedy. His instincts paid off big time: Lucy took to her new role like a fish to water, and the show was a huge success. Recognizing a good thing, CBS quickly signed Oppenheimer as the show's head writer, producer, and director, and in no time 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 Davis 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. With the completed pilot due in just a few weeks, there was just one problem--nobody knew what the series should be about. Everyone asked, "What do you do with a comedienne and a Cuban orchestra leader?" Oppenheimer had a million dollar idea: "Why don't we do a show," he 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 Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. (joined in the 1955 by writers Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf). He appeared on the show twice: in Episode #6 ("The Audition"), as one of the three TV executives for whom Ricky performs at the Tropicana, and in Episode #127 ("The Tour"), as an extra who walks in front of the Hollywood Tour Bus just before Lucy and Ethel get on board. His voice can also be heard in Episode #30 ("Lucy Does a TV Commercial") as the sound man who tells Lucy to "go ahead" and begin her commercial for "Vitameatavegamin."
Oppenheimer left "I Love Lucy" in 1956 to take an executive post at NBC, where he produced a series of landmark TV specials, including the General Motors 50th Anniversary Show (1957), Ford Startime (1959), _The Ten Commandments (1959) (TV)_, and the "1959 Emmy Awards." Oppenheimer and Ball were reunited when he produced _The Danny Kaye Show with Lucille Ball (1962) (TV)_, which was nominated as "Program of the Year" by the TV Academy, and again two years later when he executive produced a "Lucille Ball Comedy Hour" entitled Mr. and Mrs. (1964), starring Lucille Ball and Bob Hope.
During the 1960s Oppenheimer created and produced three sitcoms: Angel (1960)(starring Annie Fargue and Marshall Thompson), Glynis (1963) (starring Glynis Johns), and The Debbie Reynolds Show (1969). His other TV credits include The United States Steel Hour (1953) (writer), Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre (1963) (producer), and Get Smart (1965) (writer, producer, and director). He received two Emmy Awards and seven other Emmy nominations, a Sylvania Award, and the Writers' Guild of America's Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Achievement.
An avid inventor, Oppenheimer held 18 patents covering a variety of devices, including the in-the-lens teleprompter used by everyone from news anchors to presidents, and first used by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on a 1953 TV commercial for Philip Morris cigarettes. Upon his passing on December 27, 1988, Lucille Ball called Jess Oppenheimer "a true genius," adding, "I owe so much to his creativity and his friendship." His best-selling memoir, "Laughs, Luck...and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time" (www.lucynet.com) was completed after his death by his son, Gregg Oppenheimer.- IMDb Mini Biography By: Gregg Oppenheimer
- SpouseEstelle Weiss(August 5, 1947 - December 27, 1988) (his death, 2 children)
- As part of his contract with CBS, which stipulated that he was to receive 20% ownership in any television show he helped to create, he ended up with 20% ownership in I Love Lucy in 1951. He gave 5% to his co-writers, Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll Jr..
- Father: James Oppenheimer; Mother: Stella C. Jessurun.
- They (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) would just sit in the corner holding hands, just looking at each other, they didn't say anything. Just sat there and stare.
- Lucy and Desi got to this point in acting out the script and then this strange thing happened. Suddenly they remembered their own real emotions when they discovered that at last they were going to be parents, and both of them began crying.
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