Behind huge thick glasses and a blur of pink lipstick, and under a head of hair that's now a mutant orange, there's still a Lucy there somewhere. A wacky redhead, a compulsive cutup, a housewife who longs to be in show business, a chorus line cutie, an aspiring saxophonist, a grape stomper, a candy packer, a Vitameatavegamin girl.
Lucille Ball is the biggest and most enduring of all television stars. She has virtually nothing to gain, except money she doesn't need, and a new assortment of aches and pains, by returning to television tomorrow night as the star of ABC's new sitcom "Life With Lucy." But life for Lucy was shriveling up. She isn't at all worried that the weekly grind will upset her daily schedule.
"Well, that could only be a pleasure, 'cause my daily schedule was getting boring, already," Lucy says. "There was not enough to do. I'm not a shopper, I'm not a go-to-lunch-and-join-the-girls-every-day type -- not even every week, really. So it was tough for me. I had plenty of things that I found to do, but I like having a steady routine, a place to go, an arena, and something to look forward to."
She's not a shopper. She's a worker. She's been working for more than half a century, through movies and radio and television and now, at 75, she's the boss lady again. The living legend wants to do a bit more living. And so "Life With Lucy" takes its place in the lineage after "I Love Lucy," "Here's Lucy" and "The Lucy Show."
They've all been Lucy shows. To a succession of television generations, Lucy has been a constant. It's basic literature, it's stuff you have to know to graduate, it's electro-folklore. But Lucille Ball does not want to be a historical figure just yet.
And so she schleps in four days a week to the Warner Hollywood Studios, in a shady neighborhood off Santa Monica Boulevard, and to a spacious but dingy dressing room where there are posters celebrating her big flop movie "Mame" and the "What becomes a legend most" ad she did for that famous mink coat company.
What becomes a legend on this particular day is a frumpy suit of work togs and a very mundane honey-baked-ham sandwich on plain white bread, which she brought from home. She usually brings in home-made meat loaf for lunch, a publicist says. She sits at a table and eats the sandwich and looks distracted and continually blots her pink lipstick with a paper napkin, until it looks like a gay Rorschach.
And she's so damn glad to be back.
"I was a little frightened at first," she says. "Not that they wouldn't dig our comedy, because I have our old writers, and my reruns have been running for so long successfully, that I didn't feel it was a whole new thing, coming back and saying, 'How would they accept us?' Because they're accepting us every day all over the world.
"But I was nervous about the new people, and the people that I have to do without, people that are gone. That saddened me terribly. I guess I'm over most of my crying. I've been at it for some time. It came back when I got on the set again, but I guess I'm over it now. But we have lost an awful lot of people in the 15 years I've been off. We lost some before I quit."
Among those lost, and missed, are William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who played Fred and Ethel Mertz, landlords and friends, on "I Love Lucy." For "Life With Lucy," Ball has reunited with another, later, foil, Gale Gordon, 80.
It's not as if this were the first time anyone had tried to get Lucy back on TV. She's been asked before. "Oh, many times," she says, starting a new round of blotting. "But not with the right property or the right setup. This was an offer I couldn't refuse. The offer was great. And even a new network. I've never been with another network than CBS all my life, so it was all very exciting. A little scary, going to New York and meeting the higher echelon. It turned out to be wonderful but my knees were shaking that day."
Her knees were shaking? She's got to be kidding. But she isn't. She's blotting, but she isn't kidding.
"Mr. Paley called and I said, 'It's so strange to be going back to work and not be working for you.' He was very sweet. We had seen each other in New York at the Museum of Broadcasting and just to be funny I said, 'Well, I just won't have Bill Paley to kick around anymore.' But it really is strange. I have to get used to saying 'ABC' and, funnily enough, I am not saying 'CBS,' I'm saying 'NBC,' whom I've never worked for!"
There was an announced plan of reentry for Lucy at NBC a few years ago -- one of Fred Silverman's big deals -- but then, as Lucy says, "he lost his job," and that was that. It was former and once-again CBS Chairman William S. Paley with whom Ball argued more than three decades ago about installing her then-husband Desi Arnaz as costar of "I Love Lucy." Paley lost the argument and, with Lucy's help, won the decade.
The new show has Lucy playing a grandmother who inherits half of her late husband's hardware store. Lucy says the hardware store idea really appeals to her. "We have a lot of gadgets in the hardware store that can explode or get out of whack. We haven't used 'em all yet. We had a guard goose. A guard goose! Let me tell you, that's for real, you don't fool around with those birds."
That a 75-year-old woman is doing physical comedy again may strike some observers as a little bizarre, even a little bit "Sunset Boulevard." Asked if the character she's playing will have been affected by feminism, or other changes in American society in the past 15 years, or deal with issues facing senior citizens, Lucy responds with a blank stare. Around Hollywood, the word on "Life With Lucy" is that it is a show in tune with the times, but the times are 1965.
As for the physical stuff, there are signs it is more wearing than Lucy expected. On this day she'd been rehearsing a dance with guest star Peter Graves. "When's your birthday?" Lucy asks, "because you can have my dancing. No, I don't dig the dancing."
Over at the competition, NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, asked if he's worried about the ratings prowess of Lucy's new show, says, "The question is, is it going to have any appeal to a younger audience? There's also the question of the grind of turning them out week after week. I've heard there's been a stamina problem."
Aaron Spelling, whose company is producing "Life" with Lucy's company, seems to inspire great confidence from Ball, however. As a young actor, he played a hillbilly in an "I Love Lucy" that featured Tennessee Ernie Ford many, many moons ago. "I didn't even remember it," Lucy admits. "Aaron is a fine producer. He's a going concern, he has clout, and you need it these days to even get up off the carpet."
Lucy blots and noshes on and is suddenly startled when her husband, Gary Morton, whom she married after divorcing Desi in 1960, saunters in. Morton, a former stand-up comic, is a big man with a booming voice, and when he comes up behind his dining, blotting wife, she is so shocked she jumps in her chair.
"Scared the hell out of me!" Lucy yells, laughing broadly.
"Good, good!" says Morton.
"Oh, you owe me one," Lucy remembers.
"No that's half the story. You've got a big one coming, a big one coming," Morton chides her.
"I got him the other night," Lucy confides. "Almost gave him a heart attack!"
"That's what you're going to read in my obit," says Morton. " 'Lucy's husband died.' You'll know why. She'll say, 'I don't know, I just walked in and said, HELLO!' We do it all the time. She'll scare me when I'll be sitting and watching TV in the den. Then I get her when she has water in her hands, and surprise her when she's playing backgammon, and the water goes, the dice go, everything goes.
"I met Lucy 26 years ago," Morton says without a beat, "and we've been happy ever since."
Yes, but one can see why she wanted to get out of the house.
As for Lucy, she has been giggling and laughing continuously as Morton talks. Morton says it doesn't bother him at all to see an old "I Love Lucy" rerun in which his wife is cuddling and cooing with her former husband. "It never bothers me. I marvel at Desi's ingenuity."
Ball is not always amused by the reruns.
"I don't like some of the shows that I look at. Some of the old 'I Love Lucys' are silly. Some of the old 'I Love Lucys,' when we were just starting, grate me a little. But I love the later shows. I loved the ones I did with the kids -- 'Here's Lucy' -- and I liked the ones where we moved up to Connecticut. I liked those shows better. Whatever they were called."
" 'I Love Lucy,' and then, 'The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,' " Morton helpfully coaches her. "You did both with the Connecticut house."
"Do I laugh at them? Sometimes," Lucy says. "I study them and enjoy them and I wish I'd done it differently lots of times -- most of the time -- but very few I really laugh at. I find that now I usually spend my time looking at Viv. Viv was sensational, and back then, there were things I had to do, I was in the projection room for a reason, and I just couldn't concentrate on it. But now I can, and I enjoy every move that Viv made. She was something.
"And so was Bill and so was Desi. Desi was doing three jobs and doing them magnificently, and I marvel at some of them now when I think back. My God, running the studios as he was and he never missed a line, and not even knowing the language well enough! But those are the things I think of now."
Ball's marriage to Desi Arnaz was considered a classic combustible affair even for Hollywood. They were among a handful of truly royal couples of the '50s. You'd think that someone, somehow, would have managed to get them back together again for just one joint appearance in the intervening years. It would be like reuniting the Beatles. But no.
"People have tried, many times," says Lucy. "It's never been that important or that right or that correct or whatever the word is. It's been several different occasions with different things, charities or just somebody trying to make a noise, but no, we've never gone for any of that, except for '25 Years of Lucy' that Gary put together." Arnaz appeared on the 1976 special, but shared no scenes with his ex-wife.
"You know, the Emmy show or something, people will ask, 'Do you think Lucy and Desi would come on and do a number?' " says Morton. "He's very nice about it. He says, 'No, I don't think I can top what we did then, and I don't want to do a number or anything with her.' "
But Desi does contact Lucy and wished her good luck on the new show, she says. "We talk all the time. He'll send flowers and we have conversations. He's not feeling too well right now. He said the other day, 'I wish I was well enough to get in there and punch around with you' -- help, you know."
Lore about Lucy always maintains that no canned laughter was ever used, at least not on the "I Love Lucy" series, but on some of the earliest reruns, the laughter does sound manufactured, or at least augmented (it's called "sweetening" now). Lucy insists no. Then she's asked about the "uh-oh woman." A woman's voice can be clearly heard on many of the shows saying a loud "uh-oh!" when a scheme hatches in Lucy's henna-rinsed head. It sounds suspiciously consistent from show to show.
"I never heard that before," Lucy says, completely uninterested.
"Someone suggested once it may have been your mother, because she was there every week," says Morton.
"It wasn't my mother," says Lucy. "My mother would laugh like hell, but she wouldn't go 'uh-oh.' "
Ball has won so many awards she can't remember them all, but she does seem impressed to have been named this year as the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, to be given her in December. "That is an honor," she says. "I've had a few honors in the last few years; when you are not working, they know you're available to show up. But this one is really special, and I feel very good about it, and I shall be there."
And then she frowns and gets a bit sarcastic: "And I'll be working and we've got to fly in bad weather and get back here to go to work in the middle of December, God knows!" But there are fringe benefits. "I'll get a couple of new dresses. And I don't have to dance or sing."
Gee, and Lucy Ricardo would always have given anything to dance and sing.
Ball has seemed rather chilly during much of the interview. But then, when it is time for her to go back to the set, she becomes touchingly gracious. "I really appreciate your coming out here," she says. "I'm very happy to have met you personally. I remember being very thrilled at what you wrote about me." Ah, there still is a Lucy in there.
"The first day, she says, 'Gary, I'm so nervous!' " Morton recalls once she's left the bungalow. "And I said, 'Honey, just take it easy. You know the three-camera setup, you know this and that,' and we worked hard with her and Gale was a security blanket for her. And the second day? It's like she'd never left."