Find someone with the sadness and brilliance of Beach Boy Brian Wilson? No problem. Hire the very British Jeremy Northam to play the extremely American Dean Martin? Why not? Find two actresses to re-create the fragility of Judy Garland? Done.
Producing partners Craig Zadan and Neil Meron -- whose resume includes TV movies about all of those very public figures, to say nothing of the Oscar-winning blockbuster “Chicago” -- are used to difficult casting challenges.
But there are challenges, and then there’s Lucy. The subject of their newest project, Lucille Ball, is not merely someone people love. Hers is a face that has been on TV almost every day for the last 52 years.
“When we were putting this movie together,” Zadan recalls, "[CBS chief] Les Moonves said to us, ‘You know, casting someone to play Lucille Ball is probably the most impossible casting job in history. There’s nobody who can do Lucy, because Lucy’s on TV every single day.’ He was right -- it turned out to be the most difficult casting job.”
Zadan and Meron, executive producers of tonight’s three-hour “Lucy” (CBS agreed to the longer-than-usual running time in order to do justice to a cornerstone of the network’s success), eventually found their redhead.
They went with Broadway actress Rachel York, whom they had seen in the Stephen Sondheim revue “Putting It Together” and opposite Julie Andrews in the 1995 stage remake of “Victor/Victoria.” “You don’t find a lot of beautiful women who are great comediennes,” Meron notes.
Adds director Glenn Jordan: “Usually, funny women are funny looking. Lucille Ball was the first woman to break that mold.”
Besides being beautiful, York is able to reproduce Ball’s comedic abilities on screen. “If you’re gonna do a comic story, you’ve got to find an actor who has comic chops,” Zadan notes. “Rachel’s one of those people.”
To prepare for the role, the 31-year-old actress watched numerous episodes of “I Love Lucy,” studied television interviews, and read four biographies on Ball, including the autobiography “Loving Lucy.”
“At first, I figured she played that clownish character on ‘I Love Lucy’ and that she was something like that,” York says. “I realized she was playing a character on ‘I Love Lucy’ -- that wasn’t Lucille Ball.”
For the role of Desi Arnaz, the producers cast 27-year-old actor Danny Pino, seen most recently as a gangland thug on FX’s “The Shield.” Zadan and Meron had difficulty finding an actor who could portray the philandering and volatile Arnaz. “It’s not that the other actors we saw weren’t good, but they became unlikable,” Zadan recalls. “With Danny, when Lucy looked at him, you could see what she saw in him.”
“I approached it in a very pro-Desi way,” says Pino. “I was not about to taint the memory of an icon. I focused on why he was the way he was, rather than exploit his behavior.”
The Miami-born actor had more in common with Arnaz than being Latin. “My dad comes from a province in Cuba called Oriente, which is the same province Desi’s family was from. Desi’s father, in fact, was the mayor of Santiago de Cuba, the capital of Oriente.” Arnaz’s family was forced into exile in 1934 when he was 16 years old, going from aristocracy to living in a warehouse in Florida where his father had to kill the rats each night before the family could go to sleep.
“My own father was exiled in 1959 by the Communists,” recounts Pino. “My grandfather was vice mayor of his province in Cuba and got to Miami and became a dishwasher. So the parallels are there.”
Like York, Pino studied episode after episode of “I Love Lucy” and read both Ball’s autobiography and Arnaz’s own book (simply titled “A Book”). “Everybody knows who Ricky Ricardo was, and people tend to mislead themselves into thinking that’s who Desi was,” says the actor. “I think Ricky was the person Desi wanted to be.”
Arnaz, of course, portrayed a nightclub performer and bandleader on “I Love Lucy,” which required Pino to learn a few additional skills. For a performance of Arnaz’s signature song, “Babalu,” a hit for Miguelito Valdes in 1937, Pino studied conga with two of Miami’s top percussionists, as well as guitar. “Desi actually popularized the whole conga dance craze in the 1930s,” says Pino, something which drew the attention of bandleader Xavier Cugat. “He was very popular. In a way, he was the Elvis of his time.”
When opposites attract
Filmed over a two-month period earlier this year in Auckland, New Zealand, “Lucy” tracks the difficult but intense romance between Lucy and Desi, from Lucy’s early childhood in Jamestown, N.Y., and her growth as a rising star in Hollywood, through the production of “I Love Lucy,” until the couple’s split in 1960, after “I Love Lucy” and its successor, “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,” had gone off the air.
Clear from their meeting on the RKO lot in 1940, where Arnaz was filming Rodgers & Hart’s “Too Many Girls,” is the incredible attraction the two stars had for each other. “There was such sexual combustibility between these two people,” Zadan recalls. “They could not get along with each other, but they also could not get along without each other. In today’s terms, they were codependent.”
“They were such opposites in so many ways,” notes York. “They were complements in the beginning, and became such great opposites in the end.” Adds Pino: “Lucy described their relationship as living on a volcano on which you never knew when it was going to erupt. Those arguments, those passions and jealousies, caused a lot of pain, but also acted as sort of an aphrodisiac.”
For Ball, those jealousies were fired by Arnaz’s lifelong habit of surrounding himself with mistresses. Says Pino, “I tried to find out why he did it. In his book, he recalls his grandfather having a mistress with seven or eight children. Apparently, having two houses and two sets of children was very common among Latin men of means. That’s not to say he never felt bad about it. He understood that it was not a good thing.”
“In the beginning, she didn’t believe a lot of the stories,” explains York. “It’s when it became public, appearing in the tabloids -- that’s when it had gone too far. Because then it infringed on her own reputation.” In her research, York came upon one telling moment. “Lucie Arnaz recalled, as a little girl, seeing her mother, with her long red nails, leaning over Desi, saying to him, ‘I wish you were dead!’ clenching her teeth. It was chilling, and it was so sad.”
“Lucy,” as with most of Zadan and Meron’s biopics, strikes a careful balance between telling the personal story of the personalities involved, as well as portraying, with great accuracy, the history those personalities created and lived in. “It’s very much a backstage story,” says director Jordan, who insists “everything in it is true and actually happened.”
Ball is seen with close friends Carole Lombard and Red Skelton, studying with legendary screen comic Buster Keaton, and rehearsing and working up the routines that made “I Love Lucy” so memorable, some of which are re-created -- note for note, including originally flubbed lines -- in the film.
“I must have watched the ‘Having a Baby’ scene 75 times,” says Jordan, of a famous “Lucy” episode in which Lucy breaks the news to Ricky of her pregnancy (the episode most recently aired last month locally on KTTV; the series also runs on cable’s TV Land). “Every single camera angle was the same, I have the extras behaving in the same way -- all the kinds of little details that nobody but real buffs will notice.”
Re-creating some of those scenes was nearly impossible, he adds. “So I did them as rehearsals, to kind of suggest what the reality was. The movie really shows how she became the clown that she was.”
The film is loaded with extras and character actors -- nearly 80 such actors, according to Jordan -- portraying the various names and faces any Lucy fan knows, though may have never seen. Hollywood legends such as Bette Davis and Clark Gable make appearances, as well as “I Love Lucy” producer-writer Jess Oppenheimer and writers Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh. Jordan even threw in the show’s original cinematographer, the legendary Karl Freund, who, with Arnaz, created the three-camera film system still used today in sitcom production.
“He seems like an extra,” the director notes. “You’ll see a stout, elderly guy walk across the ‘Lucy’ set carrying a Thermos, which Karl Freund did do. He had a Thermos of martinis!”
For all its detail and realism, one thing comes across in “Lucy” that is clear even to the closing moment of the film, that Ball and Arnaz loved each other. Says Zadan, “You just see these people, and you just wish they could be together, and they can’t. But when they were together, look what they created, look what came of that relationship. Not only was it one of the most tempestuous love affairs in history, but it changed the face of and created what we know as television. It’s an amazing story.”