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BY STEVE ROTHAUS, 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 large 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 associated with 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 boy 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 Ricky, hours after Ball delivered her real-life son, Desi Jr., said Oppenheimer, who recently released an audiobook based on his father’s memoir, I Love Lucy: The Untold Story. Royalties from the audiobook go to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.
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 Lucie Arnaz. By the end of season one, Ball and husband/co-star Desi Arnaz knew they were going to have a second child.
At first, CBS and the show’s sponsors didn’t want Lucy Ricardo to also have a baby. “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.’”
A total of 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 part, Keith Thibodeaux.
“I wasn’t Little Ricky. I never was Little Ricky, but I was formed and fitted for that part., said Thibodeaux, now 62, who played the role from 1956 to 1960.
At age 3, Thibodeaux had been a drummer on band leader Horace Heidt’s TV show. 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!’”
Dark-haired Thibodeaux — who looked like a mini Desi Sr. — demonstrated his drumming abilities and got the job. Desilu studio execs changed his name from Keith Thibodeaux to Richard Keith, making him a real-life Little Ricky, as he was billed during The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour years (1957-60).
From the start, Thibodeaux became close with the Arnaz family and Lucy co-stars Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played neighbors Ethel and Fred Mertz.
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. Call Viv Viv and Bill Bill,” Thibodeaux recalls. “It’s funny how the years change. When she did her later shows, she told people on the set to call her Miss Ball or Mrs. Morton.” (In 1961, Ball married Borscht Belt comic Gary Morton.)
Off-screen, Thibodeaux became a playmate to Desi Jr. and little Lucie. “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 brothers and sisters, grew up Roman Catholic and went to school with other ‘50s 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 March 2, 1960, when the Lucy cast and crew shot what would be the show’s final episode, guest starring comedian Ernie Kovacs and his wife, Edie Adams. After filming ended, 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 after The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour folded. Keith appeared as a guest star on various ‘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.
Thibodeaux said Ball fired his father in 1966 after she caught him having an affair with a secretary. The family returned to Louisiana and his parents divorced.
The former child star eventually played in a few rock bands and used drugs including heroin and LSD. He turned to Christianity in the early ‘70s and in 1976 married Kathy Denton, a medal-winning ballet dancer. Their daughter, Tara, is now 33.
In 1986, the Thibodeauxs founded Ballet Magnificat!, a professional Christian ballet company in Jackson, Miss., that “presents the gospel of Jesus Christ to the widest possible audience,” Thibodeaux said.
“We’re sort of the biggest of the genre. We’re comprised of all believers,” he said. The company 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.”