EXCLUSIVE: Keith Thibodeaux still loves Lucy.
The special, which features interviews with Carol Burnett, Suzanne Somers, Lily Tomlin and Debra Messing, among others, details how Hollywood’s most famous redhead broke barriers as a star and created a new path for female entertainers today. It also explores Lucille Ball’s marriage to Desi Arnaz, as well as her final years before passing away in 1989 at age 77.
Thibodeaux, who is now the executive director of Ballet Magnificant! in Mississippi, spoke to Fox News about was it like auditioning for “I Love Lucy,” his relationship with Ball and Arnaz, whether William Frawley and Vivian Vance got along, as well as how he feels about the series today.
Fox News: What was it like auditioning for the role of “Little Ricky?”
Keith Thibodeaux: I must have been barely 5 years old. I had played drums professionally on the road with a big band called the Horace Heidt [Orchestra]. We were on hiatus. My dad had a friend who was connected with Hollywood in terms of auditions. So he told my dad about the part of Little Ricky. It was an expanded role and they were [looking] for someone a little older. The Little Ricky character had previously been played by two sets of twins as infants. But at this point, they were looking to write more stories with him.
I remember my dad told me, “Keith, this is something really big.” He got my hair ready and… I was looking like Little Ricky. As a child, I was unaware of how important this show was, but I got from my dad that this was a very important audition. So I got on the set and there was Lucy. She was bigger than life. She looked at me and said to my dad, “Well, he’s a cute kid. What does he do?” And my dad said, “Well, he actually plays the drums.” She couldn’t believe it. And she said, “Well, there’s a set of drums over here on the set. Why don’t you go over there have him play?”
I got on the set and they were just amazed that this little kid could play the drums as I did. Desi came over and started playing the drums with me, jamming with me on the drums. And all the technicians would gather around. Sheldon Leonard, the famous producer for “The Danny Thomas Show,” came over. Everyone was watching this little kid. We got to the end of our jam. Desi just stood up and said, “I think we found Little Ricky” and laughed. That started a whole relationship with the Arnazes on the set of course, as a child actor, but then off the set as well.
Fox News: What surprised you the most about Lucille Ball?
Thibodeaux: I think just her professionalism. I think that’s the thing that comes up in a lot of people that talk about Lucy. She was very professional, very unlike her zany, kooky character that she played on the show. When she was on the set, she expected everyone to do their jobs, to know their lines. She was a very no-nonsense kind of person. That seemed to be the description for her.
But I think the thing that surprised me the most about her was her passion for what she did. And also just off the set, she was very interested in a lot of things and history. I think she was a romantic in that way. As far as Desi goes, she loved him very much.
Fox News: Many people who knew Lucille Ball described her as being completely different from her Lucy Ricardo persona.
Thibodeaux: She picked up on a character that we all know. She could be your aunt, your mom, your friend, even you. She picked up on this personality that was familiar to us. And the writers of the show all picked up on it too and just ran with it, creating these crazy situations.
Fox News: Which was your favorite “I Love Lucy” episode to film?
Thibodeaux: Oh, there were many. Anytime I was able to play my drums was big… But the Superman episode with George Reeves was a big one for me. I mean, he was Superman. He was my hero in real life. And then when he came on the set, it was like a surreal thing where I was looking at this big guy who was super. In my acting mind, I knew he was just an actor.
But in my little kid mind, you know, I had this whole fantasy thing that he really was Superman. It was like two different worlds colliding. But was a great treat to have him on. He was just an amazing guy. I could tell that he really loved kids in real life, too. And he wasn’t just some guy playing a part in a weird suit running around in tights and stuff. He was a really cool guy.
Fox News: You impressed Desi Arnaz with your drum skills. Once you got the role, what was it like working with him?
Thibodeaux: Desi and I really hit it off. I’m from South Louisiana, French Cajun heritage. And I have this weird last name. In fact, he gave me another name, Richard Keith, for the show. Because he didn’t think that anybody could pronounce “Thibodeaux,” which they couldn’t at that point. I think the Cuban culture and the Southern Louisiana Cajun culture has similarities in terms of family and culture. So not only did we connect rhythmically but on a personal level too.
I think our roots really connected us and I really felt that on set. And Desi kept me grounded in a strange way. He was more down to earth. Lucy was more of a Hollywood star. Desi was more than just a Latin guy with a funny accent [who] barely spoke English. He was amazingly talented who did a lot of hard work behind the scenes, too. It was easy to bond with him.
Fox News: What about William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who played Fred and Ethel Mertz. What were they like?
Thibodeaux: They were great actors. Vivian and Lucy hung out on set a lot. They would do their makeup together and just chit chat like two women in a beauty parlor having girl talk. Fred was the old guy you would meet at the doughnut coffee table in the mornings. He would look at me and go, “How’s the world treating you today, Keith?” They were very professional. I didn’t really have a relationship with them on set. I knew them and they knew me. But it wasn’t the same relationship I had with Lucy and Desi.
Fox News: It’s always been said that William Frawley and Vivian Vance didn’t get along on set. Did you ever sense any tension between them?
Thibodeaux: I did, yeah. I mean, there were some times when I would be with them getting ready to come on the scene. And our cue would come on. But before the cue would come on, they would have a few little words between them. I would just look up like, “Huh, I wonder what’s wrong with them?” But they really kept it under wraps, especially around me. And I think that their professionalism outweighed whatever they had between them.
Fox News: What was the last day of filming like for you?
Thibodeaux: It was very interesting. I think it was the Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams episode of “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.” There were a lot of tears. But my dad didn’t really let me know it was the end until the show was completed. He didn’t want me to be affected by that. But after we finished filming, I remember driving off with my dad from Desilu Studios. My dad turns to me and says, “Keith, it looks like you’re out of a job.” It just kind of hit me that I was out of a job. And it wasn’t because the show was losing popularity. It was a personal thing that affected it. Lucy and Desi were getting divorced.
I ended up going on the unemployment line with other unemployed actors at the age of 9. My whole life was over at 9 years old, so that was kind of a shocking moment for me. But in a way, I was happy because I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just be a normal kid now.”
Fox News: What kind of relationship did you have with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz after the show ended?
Thibodeaux: I was actually best friends with Desi Jr. I was friends with Lucie Arnaz, too. We hung out as kids… We actually had a little band and played on “The Dinah Shore Show.” We were very good friends growing up until I left California after my own parents separated. We moved back to Louisiana. Up until that point, we hung out a lot… Desi taught us to ride and fish. I felt like I was an extended part of the family, like a brother or something. But as time went on, we drifted and did other things until we went our own separate ways. But I have great memories of just spending time with the family when we weren’t on set.
Fox News: How would you describe Lucy and Desi’s relationship after she married Gary Morton?
Thibodeaux: … Whenever Desi would come around or there would be any kind of interaction between them, there was always this tension underneath the surface. I felt that she really loved him and he really loved her. There was an attraction that they had for years after they both remarried to other spouses… It was kind of a bittersweet thing with both of them. They got along, but there was always this little bit of a tension that was always there.
Fox News: What was your life like after “I Love Lucy”?
Thibodeaux: Wherever I went, it would always come up that I was Little Ricky. It was a large portion of my life. I just didn’t want to be known as this Little Ricky guy all the time, you know. It just wasn’t cool back in the beginning. But throughout the years, it just became like, “Well, you know what? It’s not really a bad show after all.” It actually held its own and it’s been honored as one of the top shows ever. I would have never thought, or none of us would have ever thought it would have [ever reached] where it is now, as far as its legendary status.
Desi had the insight to put it on film. But even him, I don’t think he [ever thought] that it would go on forever like this. I mean, it just transcends cultures. And countries have translated [it] into their language. It just connects with a lot of different people… Little Ricky will always be with me, in one way or another.
Fox News: Do you remember the last time you spoke to Lucille Ball?
Thibodeaux: My dad and I went to Desi Arnaz’s funeral. We went to Desi’s beach house for a get-together there. Lucy was there of course. That’s the last time I spoke to her. I just remember all of our friends and loved ones from over the years gathering together and remembering Desi’s life. His death affected me. It affected all of us. And then when Lucy died, it was just a shock.
She was just an amazing person. She was an actress. She had a lot of history and was very professional. [But] she was also passionate about what she did. And she loved show business. She loved the limelight. She loved the audience and she loved the dynamic of that live experience… She wanted to continue that in her later life and she went through different experiences in different shows. I think her last series that she did, “Life with Lucy,” kind of bombed. She didn’t need to do it, you know. But I think that was just a part of her passion to get out and do what she knew to do and what she always loved to do, which was show business.
“Lucille Ball: We Love Lucy” airs Saturday, Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. on Reelz.