It’s pretty stupid and rather unfair but, when I walked through the door of the dressing room at the Drury Lane Theatre, I expected to see the redhead, the ditsy Hattie Carnegie hat model from New York who became the funniest slapstick comedienne on American TV. I expected to fall around, get wet, end up covered in flour as, like her namesake mum, the daughter pouted and mugged and pratfalled hysterically through the afternoon. Pretty silly, I know. But Lucille Ball, with her buckled mouth and her unfeasibly eye lashed eyes constantly opened wide by the thunderbolt surprise of life, was so famous, so notable for being the first woman to do what she did on TV and so much a comedy icon that it seemed inevitable that her daughter would not just be named after her but moulded in her image. Lucy was unavoidable television. In 1951 CBS launched I Love Lucy and the whole of America immediately did. At one point 99.9% of American households said they knew who she was. And now her daughter Lucie Arnaz, who was literally born into show business as her mother was pregnant when she did the pilot for that first TV show, is in London starring in The Witches of Eastwick, Cameron Mackintosh’s new musical comedy.
But when the door does open it turns out that she’s nothing like her mother at all. With dark hair and her father, Desi Arnaz’s, smoother features she’s a natural good looker. Great bones, good skin. She’s 49. So have you had any nips and tucks then? Anything done? “No”, she says, “but thanks”. Good genes. “When my dad took care of himself, he looked damn good.” Then she adds referring to his sad alcoholism, “He just didn’t take very good care of himself for most of his life. He was one of America’s great tragedies”. In fact after a couple of hours it’s pretty clear that she’s much more her father’s daughter than her mother’s. She knows that people think of Lucy the first time they meet her and it doesn’t seem to worry her at all. “When you walked in there were two people there for the first moments – yeah?” she says later. “It’s hard when someone knows you’re related to a famous person not for them to see the famous person first.” But she never felt in competition with Lucy. “I don’t look like her. I don’t gravitate towards projects like hers and even when people send me scripts like that I think, even if I wasn’t her daughter, ‘that’s so Lucille Ball and she did it so well, if I can’t do it better why bother to do it all?’ All I could do was not to recreate her, but that has never been my instinct. I just wisely stay in my own sandbox. And that is something my mum made me feel good about. She would come and see plays and say ‘I could never do this’. “
If Lucie Arnaz wasn’t such an engaging and frank woman, you’d be tempted to spend the whole afternoon just picking away at the ‘I-was’Lucille-Ball’s-daughter’ spot, just in case the nagging suspicion that she might have been a Joan Crawford “Mommie Dearest” turns out to be true. And the less Lucie said the more you’d want to know. But it clearly wasn’t the case. She had a fine childhood not least because of her dad. And when you ask her something she just answers it, even though she’s been asked the ‘what-was-she-really-like?’ questions a million times before. So just for the record, “Lucy was completely not ditsy. She was a very responsible, serious person in real life, frightened that something would happen to her kids. It was important to her to be in control and not let things go wrong. A lot had gone wrong in her early life, death and poverty and everything, and she wasn’t going to let that happen again.” She answers fluently.
And Desi? She is less fluent. “I really loved his music… his passion”. Pause. “His passion for living in general. He understood life in its most natural romantic form. His downfall was he liked to drink his rum. If you’re not happy you can look elsewhere for things that make you feel better?” Was he not happy with Lucy then? “Oh yeah he was happy with Lucy. He was just never happy with Desi.” He was the one who in the beginning balanced the business and he knew that “she was it. Her talent was it. He never for a minute thought it was the I Love Ricky show. Once she tripped on a cable in the studio and one of the writers caught her. And Desi said after she’d gone by, ‘Be careful boys. Anything happens to her, we’re all in the shrimp business.’ “
“Little” Lucie, as she was know for years because “everyone in the house was called Lucy or Desi so when you yelled for someone it was the only way of knowing who you were after”, has got a good handle on being her parent’s daughter and even though at one stage they were the most famous people in America, she still thinks that pretty much everybody has to do that no matter who their parents were. Since her parents both died, she has become interested in genealogy. Even though it occasionally irritates her to be “their PR, their telephone operator, to be a conduit to them” and she says, “I didn’t really appreciate being an heiress, the keeper of the flame”, when she inherited reels of home movies, hundreds of photos and sheaves of diaries they began to fascinate her. And starting about a year after her mother died in 1989 she spent three years making a TV documentary out of them called Lucy & Desi – A Home Movie. It won her an Emmy in 1993. Talking of her parents, as she does often rather formally as if they belonged to the world and not just her and her brother as in fact they did, she says, “I learnt so much about these people that I got around to believing that it’s a journey that everybody should take. It’s not really genealogy because that’s the family tree and who’s related to whom and blood relatives all the way back and boogadabugadaboo. No, to me the interesting stuff is only a few generations back. What matters was what happened to my grandmother DeDe, why she raised my mother the way she did and so that’s why my mother raised me the way she did. If you understand where your parents were at a certain time, and the burdens they were carrying you can see why they made the choices they did.” Later with typical generosity she says, “It’s a non blaming kind of thing. Instead of me thinking about my mom ‘you never had time to play with me’, I think ‘oh you poor thing you were never played with when you were young’.”
Arnaz was independent from the start. She had always wanted to perform live, but aged 17 she went into her mother’s third TV show, “Here’s Lucy” as a regular, having guested occasionally on the one before, “The Lucy Show”. Her parents were divorced but Lucie and Desi jnr played her mother’s kids. But she still didn’t pursue her theatrical career until Vivian Vance, who played Ethel the neighbour in “I Love Lucy” and whom she adored as “a real tell it like it is kind of broad”, said one holidays “what are you doing in your hiatus?” “So I listed all the holiday capitals of the world, because I had just being going on vacation. “ And Vance said, “Girl, you’re a theatre person, I know you. Don’t get stuck in a TV series for the rest of your life.” So Arnaz started to audition and aged 22 ended up playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret in San Bernadino, Califormia. Her first Broadway was the Neil Simon/Marvin Hamlisch musical “They’re playing our song” co-starring with the legendary American comic Robert Klein in 1978. A couple of years later she married her second husband, Larry Luckinbill, whom she describes as “a real actors’ actor. You know he’s a great actor who’s never been a star.” And then she had her first child, which began a twenty-year balancing act between the demands of her family and those of her career.
Her mother’s life made her acutely aware of what it was to crave and work for success. “I’ve seen people who have had great riches and fame and all the above and weren’t that much happier than Alice Briddingham’s parents over the street who were in linoleum. Look at my parents, one of them was an alcoholic and the other a workingwoman, quite unique in the eyes of the public and very successful and I don’t think she ever thought she was. So it was a little bit easier for me to weigh up the options and get the balance. I thought to myself I chose to have these kids for a reason and the one thing I don’t want to do is to get old and wonder why I haven’t got a relationship with them.” So the percentage has been about 60:40 kids to work, spanning Broadway, national US tours, some less successful television including her own show and also a comedy drama that was effectively killed off by premiering the night the Gulf War started, called Sons and Daughters. And a nightclub act, which kept her going when not much was happening in the late Eighties. “I was in LA and not much was happening. In fact it was “Hello, I’m out here. Does anybody care?” I might as well having been selling ice cream and cupcakes on the moon. And an offer came through to do a solo show of Irving Berlin to celebrate his birthday.” Where? She roars with laughter “Sicilly. I thought”, she says making a Cosa Nostra nose, “whose list am I on?” But she accepted, put the act together and ten years later is still doing it with changes.
So successful, overall? “Enough,” she says phlegmatically. “I guess I am as successful as I wanted to be.” And despite her being pretty well off she feels the need to work. As a result of nosy questioning, we discuss her finances in some detail. “Mother never left $385 million or whatever it said in the papers. It was $22m. But by the time taxes came off and Gary (Lucy’s second husband) had his share and the house turned out to be worth £5m less than originally valued, I guess I was left with over a million”. I secretly assume that it’s rather more. “God I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. But I personally don’t care about these things. I inherited money and most of it I put into the house we live in Westchester.” She laughs. Then she rings the next day. “A million dollars is a lot if you’re a poor person living in the Bowery. I am not poor. I am a millionaire. But I don’t want to live off my parents’ money. I would kill myself if that were my life. I will not live off that money.” She really is at pains to say that she honestly doesn’t want people to think she was complaining. And she definitely wasn’t. She isn’t that kind of person.
When she got the role of Alexandra, the sculptress, in The Witches of Eastwick, she was without an agent mainly because of the conditions she had been putting on the work she would do. She and Larry had made a pact that they would not both leave home to work. “I wouldn’t tour, I wouldn’t go to Australia and so I had cooked my goose.” Then a casting agent she knew as a great friend rang. “Vinny called me with this glowing…… I mean, I said ‘what is it, my birthday?’ He’s going on and on about how much he likes me and how I’m the reason he stays in the business. And I m thinking this is amazing but what does he want. And he says ‘I’m buttering you up, there’s this fantastic script form Cameron Mackintosh, but you can’t meet him unless you’re prepared to go London for 15 months. I shouted at him ‘you creep’ ha ha ha.” But in the end after seeing Mackintosh once and singing for the composers she got the job and her husband persuaded her to do it. She is now installed in a flat off Sloane Square waiting for her 15-year-old daughter to arrive “with her entire life. She is not thrilled about having to come here. I told her that she’ll hate me now, but in five years time she can say she spent a fantastic year in London and she’ll be so cool.” Her other two kids will stay in The States, her oldest boy having just got into the University of Vermont and the middle one is at a boarding school in Massachusetts. “Larry will be London Bridge for a while travelling back and forth between.”
Witches of Eastwick, written by two young Americans John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe, is based on both the book and the film. Arnaz’ role is an amalgam of the Cher part in the film and the woman in the novel. In the stage show she has been married but her husband has left her for and 18 year old and she has a son of that age. “She’s very, sarcastic and artistic and motherly. She’s got a lot of layers. She’s where I was about ten or maybe five years ago as far as not necessarily knowing who I am or what my worth is or what I am supposed to be doing here. She does not feel very good about herself and I know that feeling. I may not be there right now, but I know how to play it. I certainly understand someone who doesn’t know where their best talent lies.”
“There’s a message in the show,” she says, “although it’s a musical comedy and we don’t hit people over the head with it. So the show has got lighter since we started rehearsing. But underneath all the fun and the laughter it’s about the dangers of letting darkness into your life. If you start thinking that other things outside your life can make you happy that’s when you get into trouble.” We’re talking about her parents again. Although maybe more about her father, towards whom she so obviously has a daughter ‘s devotion. She is so clear about her mother and so soft about her father, I wonder if she has a particular image of him. There’s a hiatus and suddenly she is ambushed by her own emotions and she says, “I’m going to cry. It’s hard.” And she tells a story.
“When you said that, the one that popped into my mind was being on a boat aged 15 and him in his ripped red and white chequered lucky fishing shirt, his cigarillo (she clicks her tongue) chewed, hanging out of the side of his mouth… a wet, torn fishing straw hat. Helping me hold onto my fishing rod. He wouldn’t put his weight on it but he would just show me how to hold it. He made me do it myself and helped me reel in my first couple of marlin.” She imitates his voice “One more time…. up…. reel it down, ata girl, up….. reel it down one more time… ata girl for 45 minutes. Then he’d get a big bottle of beer or seawater and pour it over my head to cool me off…. that particular sunny, hot, wonderful day was such a great fun day… him showing me, teaching me, trusting me, not doing it for me but just teaching me how. And I don’t think I could have had three kids naturally if I hadn’t caught those two marlins by myself….” She laughs, wipes her eye and says “You just don’t think you can do it and you hear him saying ‘You can do it, just one more time’ “. Odds on then it’ll be Desi she thinks about on opening night. Not Lucy.