Lucie Arnaz always wondered if her famous parents, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, continued to love each other even after their stormy 20-year marriage ended in divorce in 1960.
“Did they really love one another ever ?,” Arnaz said. “Was she bitter at the end? Was she angry?”
When her parents, who each remarried, were still alive, Arnaz attempted to talk to them about their feelings toward each other. “I tried to talk to my mother about a couple of things and it never went anywhere,” she said, during a recent joint interview with her husband, actor Laurence Luckinbill.
Arnaz finally got the answers to her questions while working with Luckinbill on the new NBC special “Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie,” airing Sunday on NBC. The two-hour documentary is filled with candid home movies shot from 1940 to ’60, including footage of young Lucie and her little brother, Desi Jr. Interviews with family members, famous friends and people who worked with both Ball and Arnaz over the decades round out the special.
When Ball died in 1989--Desi Arnaz died in 1986--Arnaz inherited an enormous amount of home-movie footage. “I wanted to put it in cold vault storage to keep it right and I also wanted tapes so I could watch at home,” she said. “I realized there were 10 years of things I had never seen--all the early stuff. I saw this side of my parents which was unique and very sexy and romantic. Plus, there were all of these people in them, like the Van Johnsons.”
Arnaz and Luckinbill thought it would be a great idea to compile the footage with interviews, especially after CBS’ less-than-flattering 1991 TV movie, “Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter.”
“There will always be TV movies, acted-out fiction versions. And what exists, other than my father’s autobiography, that is factual and nonfiction?,” she said. “We thought it would be kind of fun to show people these home movies.”
For three years, Arnaz conducted more than 40 interviews.
“We had no plan,” she said, laughing. “I just knew I had to do it because some of these people, you know, won’t be around forever. Family was very important to me--my Uncle Fred (Lucy’s brother), my Aunt Cleo (Lucy’s sister), and the people who were with her 30 and 40 years, hairdressers and makeup people, mother’s secretary, Wanda. I picked people who were with them more often or with them in the early days before they were famous.”
Ball was a pack rat. “She saved everything,” Arnaz said. “She saved every love letter she wrote to my father while he was in the Army and every one he wrote to her. When she died, I found them all. I never read any of them and for this home movie we photographed and read them.”
The couple made a concerted effort not to dwell on Ball and Arnaz’s legendary “I Love Lucy” TV series.
“There is a minimum of footage from the home movies taken on the set of ‘I Love Lucy,’ ” Arnaz said.
“They are from the ‘Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour’ days. They are in color and are a scream. They are all silent. I used that to represent ‘I Love Lucy’ instead of the clips everybody could do by heart. It is only a portion of their being.”
“It is a story only about them at home,” Luckinbill said. “It could have been anybody’s story, really.”
“You would probably think that Lucy would be very outgoing at a party, very organizing and the one who would take charge and Desi would be preoccupied with business,” Luckinbill said. “It was the opposite. Desi was the organizer. He called people up and he cooked and he served the dinner. Lucy was very quiet and stayed in the background, spoke when spoken to and let him take over.”
Arnaz learned from her Uncle Fred that he and her mother were latchkey children who had less than an idyllic upbringing. “I asked him, ‘How did you play when you were little?’ And he said, ‘We didn’t play. We worked.’ So she became an adult at a very young age.”
Her mother never told her about any childhood hardships. “It was like get on with it, move on, which is what she had to do,” Arnaz said.
“What in part this piece does is explode the myth that success brings the pressures that destroy you and turn you into a monster or an obsessive worker. You are turned into that by the time you are 7,” Luckinbill said.
When her parents divorced, Arnaz, who was 9 at the time, desperately wanted them to get back together. “You think if you show your mother ‘The Parent Trap’ 17 times in the hope she will get back together with your father, you are the only one who fantasizes your parents still love each other,” she said. “I don’t think there is anybody I interviewed who knew them who didn’t say something to the effect that they never fell out of love with each other. Everybody felt that way. It wasn’t just me.”
“Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie” airs Sunday at 9 p.m on NBC; repeats of “I Love Lucy” air weekdays at 3 a.m. on TBS; 9 and 10 a.m. on XETV; 5:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 5 p.m. on KTTV; repeats of “The Lucy Show” air weeknights at 11 and Saturdays-Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on Nickelodeon.