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Desi Arnaz Jr. Touches Heyday of His Father in 'Mambo Kings'

December 05, 1991|GREGG BARRIOS | SPECIAL TO NUESTRO TIEMPO

For Desi Arnaz Jr., portraying his father, Desi Sr., in the upcoming film "The Mambo Kings" provided a moment of deja vu .

"The movie's sound stage was re-created at the old Desilu studios on Cahuenga where they originally filmed 'I Love Lucy,' " he said.

For Desi Jr., the son of the late Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, it was like returning to his birthplace. For, on Jan. 19, 1953, millions of viewers tuned in as Lucy Ricardo had a baby boy on the show.

"That episode was actually shot four months before I was born. The writers decided then that I (the child on "I Love Lucy") was going to be a boy," said Arnaz, now 38. "I was actually born that Monday morning and the episode aired that night. Because it was in all the newspapers the next day, many people thought that I was born on the air."

Later, TV viewers continued to believe that Arnaz started out in life playing "Little Ricky" Ricardo--just as David and Ricky Nelson played themselves on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." He never did; several actors played his character over the years.

Yet fame did come early to Desi Jr. At 14, he was part of a hit-producing ("I'm a Fool") rock trio, Dino, Desi and Billy. Then came a co-starring role (along with his sister, Lucie, who was never written in as a character on "I Love Lucy") in his mother's solo hit series, "Here's Lucy." When he turned to film acting in 1970, his performance in "Red Sky at Morning" garnered him a Golden Globe Award as "Most Promising Newcomer." Other films followed--including Norman Jewison's "Billy Two Hats" with Gregory Peck.

"I played Latin half-breeds in those films. In a curious way, they parallel my own heritage as someone from both worlds," he said, referring to his Cuban-Irish roots.

And while he loves Cuban food and Latino music, he quickly added, "I'm neither one nor the other, I'm both. I enjoy being in both worlds. But I don't identify with just my dad's or my mom's culture. It limits you as a human being."

After his parents divorced when he was 6, Desi (baptized Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV) maintained a strong relationship with his father, spending summers at his Baja California home. It was there that the elder Arnaz followed an old family custom of giving his son a formal letter on his 16th birthday to mark the transition from boyhood to manhood.

The letter urged him to simplify his life and get back to basics. "Learn from the difficulties," Desi told his son. "The purpose in life is not the temporary rewards but a deeper lasting happiness."

But, by 29, the younger Arnaz, by his own description, was "dangerously close to the terminal stage of drug abuse." It was then that his father's advice came home to roost. He voluntarily "detoxed" in a medical treatment program and has recovered.

When "The Mambo Kings" producers asked Arnaz to portray his father in 1989, he initially declined. "My mother had just passed away; the timing wasn't right." Later, after producers found actors who could impersonate Ricky Ricardo, but not Desi, he reconsidered.

"I went back to our house in Mexico and tried to re-create dad's voice. Only when I was satisfied did I agree to do it," Arnaz said.

He pointed out that the success attained by his father, who died five years ago in Del Mar, extended beyond the Ricky Ricardo persona.

"Latins strongly identified with him but so did Americans of all ethnic backgrounds. As Desi Arnaz, he was a successful businessman in a tough business. On the 'Lucy' show, Americans identified with Desi and Lucy Ricardo as a typical middle-class working American family. That wasn't just crossover; it's American mainstream."

As his parents were successful in carving their own niches in the American mainstream, Arnaz also seems to have settled into a place of his own.

"I live in Nevada now. I've remarried. My wife is a dance teacher. We have a 14-year-old daughter from my wife's first marriage," Arnaz said.

"I'm the national spokesperson for New Life Foundation, a nonprofit spiritual development program. Occasionally, I do theater and films if I feel they're worthwhile. But I'm not really pursuing a career. Now, I'm trying to put old-fashioned values back into my life, to lead a simple life."

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