It was inevitable. A movie about Lucille Ball, the American icon, the Queen of Comedy, the First Lady of Television. A shoo-in, a sure-fire ratings-getter.
An earlier program--the Dec. 18, 1989, airing of the 1956 "I Love Lucy" Christmas episode--garnered CBS an 18.5 rating, placing it No. 6 on the Nielsen list for that week. Then on April 30, 1990, when CBS trotted out the long-lost "Lucy" pilot and built a one-hour special around it hosted by Lucie Arnaz, it topped the Nielsen chart for the week.
Can "Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter," airing Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS, fail? For more than 23 years, Lucille Ball reigned supreme at CBS, starring in three sitcoms (four if you count the hourlong "Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour," 1957-60), while earning countless awards, mind-boggling ratings and setting standards for television comedy that 40 years later are hard to match.
Recognizing this, CBS assigned a $3.2-million budget to film-maker Larry Thompson, who made the two-hour TV movie after conducting a nationwide talent search last summer for the two actors who would play Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in a story set in the '40s. (The roles went to Frances Fisher and Maurice Benard.)
"Lucy & Desi" is not the story of "I Love Lucy." Thompson, who also produced a television biography on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor ("The Woman He Loved"), chose to concentrate on Lucy and Desi's stormy relationship before their television careers--how they met, married, loved and battled.
There was a lot of \o7 Angst \f7 over the project, most of it from the Lucille Ball camp. Daughter Lucie felt it was too soon to do a movie about her parents, saying recently: "I read an early draft of the script and I just thought it wasn't enough. I wanted to see a deeper story. I wanted to see what made these people tick. But it'll only be on for one night and it'll be off. Their story will be told again, I'm sure, by somebody else and maybe better."
"Lucy & Desi" takes place on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 8, 1951, the date of the filming of the first episode of "I Love Lucy." The bulk of the movie is flashbacks to the 1940s, leading up to the start of TV's most celebrated series.
Some feel that the better story is how "I Love Lucy" went on the air. (Perhaps that was Thompson's ingenious plan all along: a sequel).
It all began when CBS nixed Lucy's idea of having her husband co-star with her in a TV version of her hit radio series "My Favorite Husband."
"If (CBS chief William) Paley won't accept us as a team," 33-year-old Desi told Lucy in early 1950, "then let's go on the road and test it. You go on tour with me and the band. We'll work up an act and see what happens. If the public can accept us as a comedy team, then CBS can't possibly ignore us."
It sounded good to Lucy, 38, who wanted nothing more than to work with her husband of nine years in an effort to save their shaky marriage and, she hoped, start a family.
The Arnazes sought the help of an old fishing buddy of Desi's, Pepito Perez, an internationally known performer ("The Spanish Clown") who agreed to help fashion an act for them.
Lucy and Desi spent nearly a week in March, 1950, holed up in a hotel suite learning some original comic routines devised by Pepito and film legend Buster Keaton, Lucy's mentor from MGM. These comedy bits would serve them well: They would become the focal point of the pilot a year later and be used in several episodes of "I Love Lucy."
Some songs and husband-and-wife sketches written by two of Lucy's radio writers, Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh, were added to the 20-minute act.
The vaudeville bits, which would play between sets of Desi's rhumba band, opened at the Chicago Paramount Theatre on June 2, 1950. "After the first show, Desi and I looked at each other in wild surprise," Lucille Ball recounted in "The 'I Love Lucy' Book." "Well, I guess we can work together after all. We're on our way!"
But after record-breaking stints in New York, Buffalo and Milwaukee the Arnazes decided to call off the tour. Lucy was pregnant and because she already had suffered one miscarriage in the '40s, she didn't want to take any unnecessary chances on the road with an act as strenuous as this one. But it was not to be. Two weeks later, back at the Arnazes' ranch in Northridge, Lucy lost the baby. It was a devasting blow both personally and professionally.
Nothing seemed to be going right for Lucy. Her movie career was all but at a standstill. Her only outlet was the radio show of which she was about to start the third season.
By the fall of 1950, Lucy had made a momentous decision: If she and Desi could not do a TV show together, then she would quit acting and travel with him. CBS did not budge.