Lucie Arnaz grew up in the shadow of television’s biggest female star--her mother, Lucille Ball. So it isn’t surprising that when she decided to grab a bit of the spotlight for herself, she didn’t try to do it in a TV series. In fact, she has consciously avoided the form for 10 years.
“Until I had accomplished something on my own and developed my own following, it would have been the kiss of death to go on TV (in a series),” she reasoned. “It would have been too much of a mountain to climb. I would have been compared to her within an inch of my life.”
But now, with stage, film and TV movie credits that have long since eclipsed the tag of simply being the daughter of Lucy and Desi Arnaz, she has returned to her roots as the star of “The Lucie Arnaz Show.”
The CBS series premiered April 2 and has four more Tuesdays to run in an attempt to win a regular spot in next fall’s prime-time lineup. Arnaz stars as Dr. Jane Lucas, a New York psychologist who, besides her regular counseling practice, hosts a radio call-in show and writes a magazine advice column.
Though the emphasis is on comedy, the show is not a sitcom, its 33-year-old star insists--especially not in the sense of her parents’ classic, “I Love Lucy.”
“I’ve always hated that term ‘sitcom,’ ” Arnaz said. “Now I really hate it. It makes it sound like the show is just fluff--and it’s not. It’s not a sitcom. It’s a show; it’s a story--and like any good story, it’s full of humor and pathos.”
The show’s format, based on a British series called “Agony” that managed to blend the comedic and the serious, is what convinced her finally to return to TV, where she had starred from 1968 to 1974 with her younger brother, Desi Jr., and their mother in “Here’s Lucy.” She was 16 when that program began.
“The only reason I did the (new) show was because I thought I could say something,” she said earnestly.
In town from her New York base to promote the series, Arnaz was relaxing in a poolside room behind the Beverly Hills home where she grew up and where her mother still lives with her second husband, Gary Morton. Surrounded by photos of mother Lucy from the movie version of “Mame,” Arnaz spoke affably and confidently about her career.
Lucie’s husband of nearly five years, actor Laurence Luckinbill (who is being heard as the narrator of CBS’ “Space” this week), was playing in the nearby swimming pool with the eldest of their three children, 4-year-old Simon. (Elsewhere were 2-year-old Joseph and 3-month-old Kate.)
“I mean, I wasn’t anxious to do a television series,” Arnaz was saying. “I have no desire to become any more famous than I already am--and I don’t mean that egotistically. It’s just that I’ve been well known for . . . well, really ever since I was born, because of whose daughter I was, and I’ve never had a burning ambition to be famous. I grew up with it; I know what it’s like.
“Some of it is great, but you know what?,” she said, pointing outside beyond the pool. “We still have spots in our lawn where the grass won’t grow. And the loss of privacy--having everybody knowing every little thing you do--is a pain. It really is.”
Rather than fame, Arnaz has sought from acting the experience of conveying emotion--"helping the audience understand themselves and other people.” She won critical plaudits for her performance in the Broadway musical “They’re Playing Our Song” and also has starred in stage productions of “Vanities,” “Seesaw” and “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” Her film and TV movie credits include “The Jazz Singer,” “Second Thoughts” and “Who Is the Black Dahlia?”
“If you don’t move them, it’s almost a waste of time,” she said of acting.
Which is what she thinks of most series television.
“Oh, there’s room for ‘Love Boat’ and ‘Three’s Company,’ I suppose; they’re escapism,” she said, trying hard to be polite. “But not for me. I want to do what Bill Cosby does on his show every week. He entertains, but in each show there’s a nice underlying moral value and information about how we ought to deal with our children.
“Especially once you’ve had kids and see how they watch TV, you know they’re getting more out of it than just noise and car crashes. I really feel a responsibility to make this profession of acting loftier than people think it is. We have the potential to teach and to help.”
That was what enticed her about the premise for her series. It offered the chance to do more than just create a few chuckles.
Unlike “The Bob Newhart Show,” where Newhart’s profession as a psychologist was just a vehicle to introduce funny characters as his clients, the intent in Arnaz’s show is to use the psychologist’s job to focus on real problems that people have. A frequent plot device is to contrast the advice Dr. Lucas gives on the job with how she handles similar problems in her private life.
“It generally tries to be as informative and as touching as it is funny,” Arnaz said of her series. “The idea is to talk about why people do what they do.”
So now that she’s taken the plunge back into a series, will TV audiences love Lucie the way they loved Lucy?
Not so far.
But then, “I Love Lucy” never had to battle Mr. T and “The A-Team” the way “The Lucie Arnaz Show” does in its Tuesday-night timeslot.
In its first outing, the Arnaz show attracted 20% of the available viewers, a sliver better than “Three’s a Crowd” on ABC but well below “The A-Team” on NBC, which got 37%. The show fell to third place in its time period last week, drawing just 16% of the audience.
Still, Arnaz remains hopeful that the series will develop enough of a following to survive. With “The A-Team” geared to a large children’s following and her show aimed at adults, she believes there’s a chance she could finish a respectable second on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and win renewal--and possibly a better time slot--for the fall.