Remembering ‘I Love Lucy’ Actor Desi Arnaz Who Died from Lung Cancer 35 Years Ago

Published Dec 2, 2021

Marisa Sullivan

A TV Pioneer

  • TV legend Desi Arnaz died from lung cancer 35 years ago today at age 69.
  • The I Love Lucy actor and producer was married to co-star Lucille Ball on-screen and off; Ball famously wept at her ex-husband’s funeral.
  • Arnaz was known to smoke cigars and drink alcohol. Experts today suggest that past or present smokers get screened early for lung cancer. Experts say that if you choose to drink alcohol, it should be in moderation.

Actor and musician Desi Arnaz died from lung cancer 35 years ago today at age 69.

The I Love Lucy TV star—who created the hit ’50s sitcom with wife Lucille Ball, playing her TV hubby Ricky Ricardo—had a 20-year marriage with the actress. The legendary duo divorced in 1960 and had two children together: Lucie Arnaz, who is 69, and Desi Arnaz Jr., now 68.

Arnaz passed away in his Del Mar, Calif. home, which was right outside San Diego, leaving behind a TV legacy. Ball died a few years later from a ruptured abdominal aorta.

Related: Remembering Vivian Vance Who Played ‘Ethel’ on ‘I Love Lucy’; The Emmy-Award Winner Passed from Cancer at 7

“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,” Ball had said in a statement at the time of her ex-husband’s death.


“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.”

Photo by William Grimes/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I Love Lucy was pivotal to transforming the TV industry and its operations. The show, which was the first scripted television program to be shot on 35 mm film in front of a studio audience, won five Emmy Awards and received numerous nominations.

Ball and Arnaz were, and still are, considered two of the greatest comedic geniuses of all time. I Love Lucy is often regarded as one of the most influential sitcoms in history.

Multi-talented Arnaz was also a unique musician as founder of his highly successful Latin band, Desi Arnaz Orchestra.

Unhealthy Habits

Unfortunately, the Cuban-born producer was also known for having some unhealthy habits.

Arnaz’s doctor, Charles Campbell, told the L.A. Times that Arnaz got cancer “from smoking those Cuban cigars, that’s the truth.”

Related: The ‘Pandemic Lifestyle’ of Little Exercise, High Carbs, & Lots of Drinking Puts Us At Extra Risk of Cancer; Here Are Ways To Check Yourself

Also, it was widely known that one of the reasons Ball divorced her husband was due to his heavy drinking. Arnaz married humanitarian Edith Hirsch in 1963. (Hirsch later died in 1985 from an undisclosed type of cancer).

Former & Current Heavy Smokers Should Get Lung Cancer Screenings Using CT Scan, Says Leading Expert

Arnaz reportedly suffered from diverticulitis, a disease of the colon, but the details of his condition—along with his cancer—are a bit unclear, as most entertainers ruled their lives with privacy back in that day, mainly as to not hurt their star power.

An 89-Year-Old Survivor On Why Lung Cancer Doesn’t Have to Bring You Down

Coping with a Lung Cancer Diagnosis

Lung cancer is the second most common form of cancer, and the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women in the United States. It can be particularly tricky to treat because oftentimes, the symptoms don’t show up until the cancer has spread to other organs.

These facts are definitely scary, which is why it isn’t a shock that people tend to jump to conclusions about their prognoses after getting diagnosed with lung cancer; there was never much hope for the disease back in that day. The good news is that many advancements have been made in the treatment of lung cancer since Arnaz’s passing.

Raja Flores, a thoracic surgeon at Mount Sinai Health System, tells SurvivorNet during a previous interview how she handles a patient’s diagnosis.

Related: Kathy Griffin, 60, ‘Doing Well’ and Resting After Doctors Removed Half Her Lung Following Stage 1 Lung Cancer Diagnosis

“Everyone hears ‘lung cancer,’ they think automatically it’s a death sentence,” Dr. Flores says. “Nowadays, cancer is not a death sentence. When you see that patient for the first time, you go over all the options, all the treatment that’s out there, and you give them time. When I first meet a patient, I don’t right away rush them off to the OR (operating room), I give them all the data, I give them my opinion based on the data for their specific case, and I let them marinate.”

Related: Only 5.7% of Americans At High Risk for Lung Cancer Are Screened Annually; Here’s What You Need to Know About This Potentially Lifesaving Procedure

Today, fewer people are getting lung cancer because smoking rates are on the decline. (Smoking causes about 80% of all lung cancers, while about 20% are found in people who have never smoked.)

There have also been improvements in surgical techniques and radiation delivery that have improved outcomes and decreased side effects. Finally, newer treatments — like immunotherapy and targeted agents — are dramatically improving the length and quality of life for people who are diagnosed with lung cancer.

It’s also important, Dr. Flores says, that patients get second opinions. Cancer is something that takes time to progress, she adds, so you do have time to seek out multiple opinions and make the best choice for you.

Contributing: SurvivorNet staff

Learn more about SurvivorNet's rigorous medical review process.