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Headhunting a redhead

Where to find someone with the comic chops to play Lucille Ball? The makers of a CBS biopic turned to Broadway and Rachel York.

May 04, 2003|Matt Hurwitz | Special to The Times

Find someone with the sadness and brilliance of Beach Boy Brian Wilson? No problem. Hire the very British Jeremy Northam to play the extremely American Dean Martin? Why not? Find two actresses to re-create the fragility of Judy Garland? Done.

Producing partners Craig Zadan and Neil Meron -- whose resume includes TV movies about all of those very public figures, to say nothing of the Oscar-winning blockbuster "Chicago" -- are used to difficult casting challenges.

But there are challenges, and then there's Lucy. The subject of their newest project, Lucille Ball, is not merely someone people love. Hers is a face that has been on TV almost every day for the last 52 years.

"When we were putting this movie together," Zadan recalls, "[CBS chief] Les Moonves said to us, 'You know, casting someone to play Lucille Ball is probably the most impossible casting job in history. There's nobody who can do Lucy, because Lucy's on TV every single day.' He was right -- it turned out to be the most difficult casting job."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Lucy's book -- Lucille Ball's autobiography was titled "Love, Lucy." An article in Sunday's Calendar about the TV movie "Lucy" mistakenly reported that the book was titled "Loving Lucy."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 11, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Book title -- Lucille Ball's autobiography was titled "Love, Lucy." An article May 4 about the TV movie "Lucy" mistakenly reported that the book was titled "Loving Lucy."

Zadan and Meron, executive producers of tonight's three-hour "Lucy" (CBS agreed to the longer-than-usual running time in order to do justice to a cornerstone of the network's success), eventually found their redhead.

They went with Broadway actress Rachel York, whom they had seen in the Stephen Sondheim revue "Putting It Together" and opposite Julie Andrews in the 1995 stage remake of "Victor/Victoria." "You don't find a lot of beautiful women who are great comediennes," Meron notes.

Adds director Glenn Jordan: "Usually, funny women are funny looking. Lucille Ball was the first woman to break that mold."

Besides being beautiful, York is able to reproduce Ball's comedic abilities on screen. "If you're gonna do a comic story, you've got to find an actor who has comic chops," Zadan notes. "Rachel's one of those people."

To prepare for the role, the 31-year-old actress watched numerous episodes of "I Love Lucy," studied television interviews, and read four biographies on Ball, including the autobiography "Loving Lucy."

"At first, I figured she played that clownish character on 'I Love Lucy' and that she was something like that," York says. "I realized she was playing a character on 'I Love Lucy' -- that wasn't Lucille Ball."

For the role of Desi Arnaz, the producers cast 27-year-old actor Danny Pino, seen most recently as a gangland thug on FX's "The Shield." Zadan and Meron had difficulty finding an actor who could portray the philandering and volatile Arnaz. "It's not that the other actors we saw weren't good, but they became unlikable," Zadan recalls. "With Danny, when Lucy looked at him, you could see what she saw in him."

"I approached it in a very pro-Desi way," says Pino. "I was not about to taint the memory of an icon. I focused on why he was the way he was, rather than exploit his behavior."

The Miami-born actor had more in common with Arnaz than being Latin. "My dad comes from a province in Cuba called Oriente, which is the same province Desi's family was from. Desi's father, in fact, was the mayor of Santiago de Cuba, the capital of Oriente." Arnaz's family was forced into exile in 1934 when he was 16 years old, going from aristocracy to living in a warehouse in Florida where his father had to kill the rats each night before the family could go to sleep.

"My own father was exiled in 1959 by the Communists," recounts Pino. "My grandfather was vice mayor of his province in Cuba and got to Miami and became a dishwasher. So the parallels are there."

Like York, Pino studied episode after episode of "I Love Lucy" and read both Ball's autobiography and Arnaz's own book (simply titled "A Book"). "Everybody knows who Ricky Ricardo was, and people tend to mislead themselves into thinking that's who Desi was," says the actor. "I think Ricky was the person Desi wanted to be."

Arnaz, of course, portrayed a nightclub performer and bandleader on "I Love Lucy," which required Pino to learn a few additional skills. For a performance of Arnaz's signature song, "Babalu," a hit for Miguelito Valdes in 1937, Pino studied conga with two of Miami's top percussionists, as well as guitar. "Desi actually popularized the whole conga dance craze in the 1930s," says Pino, something which drew the attention of bandleader Xavier Cugat. "He was very popular. In a way, he was the Elvis of his time."

When opposites attract

Filmed over a two-month period earlier this year in Auckland, New Zealand, "Lucy" tracks the difficult but intense romance between Lucy and Desi, from Lucy's early childhood in Jamestown, N.Y., and her growth as a rising star in Hollywood, through the production of "I Love Lucy," until the couple's split in 1960, after "I Love Lucy" and its successor, "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour," had gone off the air.

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