Television

‘I Love Lucy’: Desi Arnaz Jr. and ‘Little Ricky’ turn 60

 

On Jan. 19, 1953, ‘I Love Lucy’ made TV history with the birth of a baby boy

srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Saturday marks a milestone for I Love Lucy, the granddaddy of sitcoms: Lucy’s babies — Desi Arnaz Jr. and the TV character he inspired, Little Ricky Ricardo — turn 60.

A few months after the blessed events on Jan. 19, 1953, the first national issue of TV Guide featured a cover photo of Desi Jr., a small picture of his mom, Lucille Ball, and the headline, “Lucy’s $50,000,000 baby,” referring to the marketing value of the real and reel babies.

“They wanted to capitalize on Little Ricky and Desi’s births. In the public’s eye, Desi was Little Ricky and Little Ricky was Desi,” said former child actor Keith Thibodeaux, who played Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s son from 1956 to 1960.

To this day, many fans mistakenly believe Desi Jr. played Little Ricky. He never did.

“For his entire life, Desi Jr. has been driven crazy by people saying ‘I loved you on I Love Lucy,’” said Gregg Oppenheimer, son of series creator, producer and head writer Jess Oppenheimer.

Nearly every television viewer in America (98.6 percent) was tuned to I Love Lucy the night Lucy Ricardo gave birth to Little Rick. The episode aired hours after Ball delivered her real-life son, said Oppenheimer, who recently released an audio book based on his father’s memoir, I Love Lucy: The Untold Story.

Fifteen million households were watching, Oppenheimer said. “And you can bet everyone in the neighborhood who didn’t have a TV came over for viewing parties.”

Lucy premiered Oct. 15, 1951, three months after the birth of the couple’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz. By the end of season one, Ball and husband/co-star Desi Arnaz knew they were going to have a second child.

CBS and the show’s sponsors initially objected to art imitating life.

“Back then, you couldn’t say the word ‘pregnant,’ ” Oppenheimer said. “They referred to her as ‘expecting’ or ‘she’s going to have a baby.’ ”

That didn’t deter Oppenheimer’s father. “My dad’s reaction was, ‘This is wonderful. I was wondering what we were going to do in the second season.’ ”

Six young actors eventually played Little Ricky: newborn James John Ganzer, twin babies Richard and Ronald Simmons, twin toddlers Joseph and Michael Mayer and the boy most associated with the role, Thibodeaux.

“I was formed and fitted for that part,” the 62-year-old said in a telephone interview.

At age 3, Thibodeaux had been a drummer on bandleader Horace Heidt’s TV show, a talent he shared with Ricky Ricardo Sr. Later, his father heard I Love Lucy was looking to cast a 5-year-old Little Ricky.

“Lucy saw me and thought I was cute,” Thibodeaux recalled. “She said I was cute, but what can he do? My dad said, ‘He plays the drums.’ She said, ‘Oh, come on!’ ”

Thibodeaux demonstrated his drumming abilities and got the job. Desilu studio execs gave him the stage name Richard Keith, making him a real-life Little Ricky, as he was billed during The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour years (1957-60).

Ball treated Thibodeaux as an adult cast member, but “when I was around there was no crude language, no off-color jokes,” he said.

“She was like a mother, literally like a mother. When I first came on the show, I called her Miss Arnaz, Miss Ball. She said, ‘No more Miss Ball, call me Lucy. Call him Desi.”

Off-screen, Thibodeaux became a playmate to the Arnaz children.

“Lucy, Desi, there wasn’t a lot of trust about who would come over and be at the house with the kids,” he said. “I was on the staff, the cast, I was on the payroll. That’s how I was introduced to the family. I was young and they thought I’d be a nice kid to hang around with their kids.”

Thibodeaux, the eldest of six children, grew up Roman Catholic and went to school in Southern California with other child stars including Angela Cartwright ( Make Room for Daddy) and Jerry Mathers ( Leave It to Beaver).

From the time his family moved from Lafayette, La., to California, he was the main breadwinner.

Everything changed on March 2, 1960, when the Lucy cast and crew shot what would be the show’s final episode. Afterward, Ball and Arnaz announced their 20-year marriage was over.

On the drive home from the set, Thibodeaux’s father, a Desilu publicist, broke the news to his son.

“He told me as we were driving back to home in the valley, ‘Well Keith, I guess you’re out of a job.’ He said the show’s over with, Lucy and Desi are getting a divorce and the show is ending,” he recalls.

“Here I was at 9 years old and this was my job, my employment. I had gotten so used to, as a kid, being someone who worked.”

The Thibodeaux family stayed in California and Keith guest-starred on ’60s series including The Andy Griffith Show. He and Desi Jr. often helped warm up the studio audience for Ball’s second series, The Lucy Show.

After his father lost his Desilu job (Ball fired him because he was having an affair with a secretary, Thibodeaux says), the family returned to Louisiana and his parents divorced.

The former child star played in rock bands and got involved in drugs before turning to Christianity in the early ’70s.

He and his wife, dancer Kathy Denton, have been married since 1976 and have a 33-year-old daughter. In 1986, they founded Ballet Magnificat!, a Christian ballet company in Jackson, Miss., that presents “story ballets … with themes of love, forgiveness.”

Thibodeaux, who in 1994 wrote an autobiography titled Life After Lucy, said religion helped get him past his traumatic young adulthood.

“Up until the time I became a Christian and gave my life to Jesus, it was really bitter. I was trying to run away from Little Ricky,” he said. “To this day, I don’t run away from it, but I don’t run toward it. It’s kind of like this old friend I knew way back when, that you want to have coffee with.”

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