Lucie Arnaz, daughter of showbiz legends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, granted permission to “Will and Grace” to do a special “I Love Lucy” tribute earlier this year. Lucie also appeared in the episode as the owner of the chocolate factory.
Lucie spoke with Gold Derby executive editor Paul Sheehan recently in the days before the episode aired about why she signed off on the tribute, how her parents were pioneers in the TV industry and her memories of winning an Emmy. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: This is an episode of “Will and Grace” paying tribute to your parents’ show, “I Love Lucy.” How did you get involved? Fill us in on that.
Lucie Arnaz: I have a new great friend named Robert Greenblatt, who was head of NBC for quite a while, now is over at Time Warner, HBO, all that stuff but he called me and he said, “Even though I’m not involved in NBC anymore, ‘Will and Grace’ is like my baby and the producers are talking about doing a tribute show for one of their very last shows of their very last season and they wanna tribute ‘I Love Lucy’ and they would like your permission and also CBS’s permission to take the actual scripts and portray Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel in various parts and what would you think about that? They don’t wanna do it unless you think it’s a good idea,” and I thought it was wonderful. I love that show. I love “Will and Grace.” I love those four guys. They have always kind of tributed the show. The writers, the producers have always tipped their hat a little bit to great comedy writers and certainly “I Love Lucy” had some of the great comedy writers of all time. Some of their sequences, some of their storylines hearken back to a few of those shows. So I spoke to CBS and I got them involved and they immediately said yes, that they would love to do that, which I thought was pretty cool. NBC, CBS, they went, “Yeah, great, take our show, do this.” And then, Max [Matchnick], one of the producers, asked me if I would consider doing a little cameo on the show and I have never, ever, ever done anything like that. I pride myself going, “No, no.” I don’t go back and do “I Love Lucy” stuff, I don’t do my mother. I run the estates, Desilu Too, and that’s enough for me. And I did a documentary and that’s as far as I wanna go. But when he told me what it was and then when I read the script for the show and it’s so damn clever, I thought, “Oh, I have to do this, it’s just too much damn fun.” So I did a little cameo in the show which I think you’ll find amusing in the chocolate factory episode. It took a while to have them decide how they were gonna do it, how they were gonna use the script and who was gonna play what and which shows they were gonna use. FYI, these are the actual “I Love Lucy” scripts. These are not “Will and Grace” send-ups of those storylines. These are the actual scripts but they have fun by switching who plays who. Unbelievable the way that it’s being done, so true. The backstage people are the ones that really blew my mind. They really took it dead serious, the prop people, the set people, costumes, makeup, the hair, the wigs. To do it for real and not do it as a sendup, you walk on the set and go, “My god, that’s the actual set,” and the conveyer belt with the chocolates, with real chocolates. They took each grape off the vine on the bunch to put into the vat, real grapes. Hello? You could’ve used rubber grapes! Who would know? It was insane to me. I had such deep respect for their crew.
GD: That attention to detail and I’m mindful first of all, on TV now there are so few three-camera comedies anymore. “Will and Grace” is one of them and that live audience, playing to the live audience. Watching it, I think about your father, Desi, who pioneers this technique. People don’t realize without him, we wouldn’t have “Will and Grace,” “Big Bang,” all these shows we love filmed in front of a live audience and that’s something your father came up with to match your mother’s talent, the need of performing in front of a live audience like she’d done on radio, but filming it. It’s extraordinary what he did.
LA: Well, they say necessity is the cause of invention and the short version of that story is that they were going to be in the show together, CBS agreed, he would play the husband, they would do this show and they lived in California in a little ranch in Chatsworth and they got a call saying “When are y’all coming to New York to tape the show?” And he said, “What do you mean New York? We’re gonna be here in California. We’re trying to start a family. That’s the whole point of us being together. We have a house here.” “No, no, no, you have to come here because if we do it in California, you have to tape the monitors and then all we get is a thing called Kinoscope,” in those days, very bad quality, and they said, “We need her to come to New York and the quality will be better.” Apparently they didn’t care what it looked like for the people in California but all the people in New York had to see good stuff. And he said, “No, no, no, we don’t wanna do that, why don’t we just film it? We’ll film it out here.” They said, “No, you can’t film it because it has to be in front of a live audience because Lucy works much better in front of a live audience. We want her in front of people.” He said, “Well, then let’s film it in front of a live audience.” They said, “You can’t do that. You can’t bring a live audience into a film studio. They don’t do that.” “Why not?” “‘Cause they don’t. Can’t do that.” And to his credit, what he should be credited for is that he kept saying, “Why not? I don’t understand. Why not? Why can’t you do that” and eventually figured out how to do it, how to hire the right people to figure out the lighting and how to talk to the fire department about how they could build bleachers and they had to put in bathrooms and they had the people wait on the line outside the studio and then they had to get permission from all the neighbors that there had to be a line outside the studio. If you’ve never read his book called “A Book,” by Desi Arnaz, cleverly entitled, it explains this. Fabulously funny and specific detail about how they actually accomplished this and eventually, without knowing it, created the three-camera live audience film technique, which is still being used today.
GD: And, his belief in this and your mother begat the ownership, because my understanding is that at some point the pilot, which I believe you feature in as an uncredited cameo…
LA: She was pregnant with me when we did the pilot, that’s right. Several years later they wanted it to get bigger because they had their little company and they were making other shows. Desilu Productions were making other little pilots but when they would take them to the big studios they couldn’t compete. The story’s also in his book. He tells it way better than I do. They couldn’t compete with the bigger studios ‘cause they had a much bigger machine to be selling and so he said, “We either gotta quit or we gotta bigger,” and she didn’t wanna quit. So they sold their rights to buy a studio. They sold their rights back to CBS. I think what you’re talking about is when he said he wanted to own the tapes, right?
GD: That’s right.
LA: That is because they got halfway through this and when they finally figured how they were gonna do a film live audience technique, it was gonna be about $5,000 more than what the budget was set for, and in those days that was a lot of money extra. So CBS said, “Well, we’re not gonna pay that extra $5,000,” and the sponsor said, “We’re not gonna pay it.” So my dad said, “All right, well Lucy and I will put up half and half of our salary and we’ll pay that extra, but if we do that, we wanna own the films,” and CBS went, “Yeah, fine, whatever,” like, “What would we need these stupid films for?” So they did have ownership of the films until they sold “I Love Lucy” back to CBS in the late ‘50s to buy the studio.
GD: To buy the studio that they met in.
LA: Exactly. RKO, that’s where they were. That’s where their studios were and they sold it back and ended up buying the whole shebang.
GD: It must’ve been incredibly emotional on the set of “Will and Grace” seeing the loving tribute and as you said, the words that your parents had said along with Vivian [Vance] and Bill Frawley, the emotion sitting there, what’s wonderful at the end of the episode there’s these shots behind the scenes and there’s this one wonderful shot of you sitting in the audience watching.
LA: Oh! I didn’t know that. I was sitting next to Jim Burrows through most of the taping on Friday and not on the day that I filmed I wasn’t out there but I came over on the Friday night before just to watch how they do it, get a sense of it so I wouldn’t feel so out of place and then Monday I came and filmed my little part. I was in costumes and wigs and makeup all day so I couldn’t really go out by the audience but it was interesting to sit and watch how they do it. It’s different. It was a little bit different from the way we used to do our show. “I Love Lucy” was filmed with a live audience and then “The Lucy Show” was filmed that way, the “Here’s Lucy” show that I was on was filmed the same way, and we did it more like a play. When the audience came in, they saw the show once. That was it. We didn’t do retakes. Unless somebody fell down or a tree fell on them, we did not go back and do stuff again. They did all those little things during the week and Jim Burrows reminded me that probably that’s because in those days it was film. It was expensive and now we have digital, which is a good thing, maybe not so much a good thing because it allows people to keep changing their mind and adding things ‘cause film doesn’t cost anything now. You can keep filming and it doesn’t cost anything. But I think my father and my mother would not have done it that way even if they could have digital because they always had a thing about the audience. They wanted their audience to be entertained. To them, it was a show. My father was a showman. He did concerts and stuff so that audience, we had a band that entertained them before the show, and he did a warmup and we only took the amount of time in between scenes that it would actually take to change costumes and wigs and stuff like that. “Hurry it up.” We started filming at maybe 6 o’clock, we were at a restaurant having dinner by 9:30. We rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed all week long, many, many times. Everybody knew their lines and the writers kept tweaking and tweaking but we didn’t do it over and over and over again, which they tend to do on shows like that, not just “Will and Grace” but a lot of the shows today. The audience sits there for a long time.
GD: You did a little apprenticeship on your mother’s second show, “The Lucy Show,” where you play Cynthia.
LA: You know a lot about people! My god!
GD: She comes to you and your brother and you say you’ll do “Here’s Lucy” with her and my gosh, some of those episodes, it’s like a mini-musical every week. You’re telling men you rehearse all week and you film all that in two or three hours. That’s extraordinary. I know that your mother stayed friends with Vivian Vance, and Vivian Vance is the reason you have the career you’ve had in a way, isn’t it?
LA: I think so. Yeah. Viv used to come and guest star on the “Here’s Lucy” show at least once a year and she knew that when I was in grammar school and in high school that I just loved doing plays and musicals and I would jump up on a box and lip-sync to “Oklahoma.” And she asked me one time, “What are you doing on your hiatus when you’re not doing this show? What do you do?” And I said, “Oh, we go to Hawaii and sometimes we go to Mexico!” She said, “Wait a minute. Stop. You’re not gonna spend the rest of your life stuck on a television series are you?” And then I got what she meant. She said, “You don’t wanna get typecast in one role for the rest of your life and never be able to go back to what you really love doing, which is the theater.” I really took that to heart ‘cause I started thinking, “You know, when they found Vivian, she was doing legit stage shows and now she’s Ethel Mertz for the rest of her life,” and she can’t go back and do “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and be taken seriously anymore. It’s too different. So she said, “Be careful. Don’t let that happen to you. When you have a chance, you get back to the theater,” and I immediately started auditioning for summer stock and regional theater and got a national tour and three years later I was on Broadway doing “They’re Playing Our Song” and just went on and on like that. Thank god she said that.
GD: And went on and on including you meeting your husband of almost 40 years.
LA: 40 years this June, yeah.
GD: And the Neil Simon connection, ‘cause he writes the book for “They’re Playing Our Song,” tell us about the Neil Simon connection between you and your husband and how you’ve honored that.
LA: Aw, yeah. I met him in September of 1979 and Larry was on Broadway at the time on Neil Simon’s straight play “Chapter Two” and I was in Neil’s musical, “They’re Playing Our Song” with Robert Klein and I met Larry [Luckinbill] in between shows one afternoon at Joe Allen Restaurant and we hit it off right away but he was going through a really sad, terrifying divorce, two children, two young boys, so I kind of went, “I don’t think I’m gonna get involved in this right now ‘cause I know what rebound relationships are like.” I had just been through one. But eventually, we started dating about three months later. We stayed friends and I invited him to do stuff with us in the theater groups I had but then we started dating for real and it went pretty quick and I had a son with Larry and we named him Simon. Simon Luckinbill.
GD: I love that and I love that when you had a daughter, named her Katharine, partly because I think you admired Katharine Hepburn, and I’m reminded of one of her films, “Keeper of the Flame” and I think that’s what you’ve been since your parents’ passing. I don’t think people fully appreciate the amount of work it is for you and keeping the integrity of their legacy. Just talk a little bit about that ‘cause I think it’s an unexpected amount of work.
LA: Yeah, it was unexpected. I had my own life, my own family, five kids, a husband and a whole career, and it’s enough. And then when my mom passed away, my brother and I unwittingly inherit all the questions and all of the pirating of merchandise with their pictures on it. Eventually, we decided that it was easier, cheaper, more reasonable, to actually create some sort of a business out of it so that we could afford to say no and hire the lawyers. So we started Desilu Too, and it runs the estates of my mom and my dad but now, 30-some years later, it’s become quite a wonderful thing. It’s a brand all of its own. It started out with us just trying to say, “Oh really, bobblehead dolls? No. Get ‘em out of here,” or, “Who stole her picture and put it on that sheet?” But now, we really think about what that show and Mom and my father really mean to the planet and what that kind of, like you said before, unconditional love and laughter, the healing power of that and how we need it today more than ever, the kindness, the friendship that it represents, that brand is incredibly valuable. It hearkens back to a time when it was simpler and maybe we didn’t have all the conveniences of us being able to do this with the internet, a magnificent friend, but it was a simpler time and it’s good to remember those times and to think about what those writers on “I Love Lucy,” and I always tribute the writers, like my mom did, what they wrote about was friendship. What they wrote about was unconditional love. I always say to people you could almost have called that show “I Love Lucy Anyway.” Because it was about somebody getting in a fix, getting in trouble, and somehow getting out of it. You can relate to that. “I screwed up again! Are they still gonna love me? Yeah, they do. Oh, isn’t that nice?” Yes, it’s funny, and God knows the healing power of actually belly laughing — belly laughing is so healthy for you — but it’s the love. It’s the love and the laughter together that has really kept it alive for almost 70 years.
GD: And I think about when your parents [won an Emmy] in the ‘50s, they make a point in their acceptance speech of asking the TV Academy to have a category for writers.
LA: Yes! Amazing. I think just the mindset that people are actually saying, “Why isn’t there a category for writers,” in a way it was a good thing that people forgot that was written. People say, “Your mother was so funny, she made up that stuff.” I say, “She didn’t make it up! Brilliant people wrote this,” and so well thought out.
GD: The TV Academy in a way makes it up to them by introducing the category but then, “I Love Lucy” is the only show that’s in the TV Hall of Fame and it happens in 1990, the same year they induct your father and that’s a big year, ‘cause that’s also the year that you win your own Emmy Award.
LA: I think that was ’93. I think we won it in ’93.
GD: Oh, okay. You can’t always believe IMDb. But I do believe the competition. This is when you make the documentary about your parents using home movies and your competition includes Katharine Hepburn for her little video memoir “All About Me,” Oprah interviewing Michael Jackson, a Barbara Walters special and a documentary about D.W. Griffith, who founded Hollywood.
LA: What was very cool about that, and I don’t spend time tooting horns about winning that award, but I have to tell you there was something so cool that year. That was the year they decided, “We’re gonna do it differently now. We’re gonna have the five things that are up and we’re gonna have people come into an auditorium and they’re gonna watch it and we’re not gonna have ‘the award goes to,’ we’re gonna have this. If you think it’s worthy of an Emmy you put, ‘Worthy of an Emmy,’ and if you don’t, you don’t.” And the ones that get up to a certain amount of votes, they all get Emmys and the ones if they don’t make that many votes, they don’t get an Emmy. We said, “Well, what happens if nobody gets enough votes?” They go, “Then nobody gets an Emmy.” “Well, what happens if everybody gets it?” “Then everybody gets an Emmy.” Really? I thought, “Well that’s bizarre.” So we were the only people to win. That even made it more incredible. like, what?! I really though that was amazing and I said in my acceptance speech, this was not an easy piece to make because it really wasn’t, to ride that fine line. It wasn’t a tribute. It wasn’t a trash piece. It was just trying to tell the truth about their lives.
GD: It’s a wonderful thing and bringing everything full circle I believe it aired on NBC and it’s almost 30 years ago. The wonderful thing about “Will and Grace,” we’re an awards website so I know people watching will know this, but “Will and Grace” is one of only three shows that all of the main cast won Emmys. “All in the Family,” “Golden Girls” and “Will and Grace.” When you tied your parents’ legacy to a show, you picked the right one, I think.
LA: You know what, they have the right amount of heart. “Will and Grace” has a tremendous heart and they were pioneers in the type of thing that they were telling a story about, gay couples. My mom was married to a Latino. That was a no-no, you can’t do that, mixed marriage on television, you couldn’t be pregnant on television, there were all these firsts and “Will and Grace” had a lot of firsts too. And it’s really well-written. It really, really is. I was honored that they wanted to do that. I’m sure my mother and dad would be thrilled. I’m sure they are thrilled and they’ll be watching on Thursday night with the rest of us. Sitting by ourselves with our masks and our Purell in our hands we will be watching this going, “Thank god there’s laughter somewhere!”