‘Lucy and Desi’: A conversation with Amy Poehler and Lucie Arnaz

A black-and-white photo of a woman and a man standing together on a porch.
A still from the Amy Poehler-directed documentary “Lucy and Desi” shows Lucille Ball ands Desi Arnaz at home in Chatsworth circa 1942.

Before Amy Poehler was attached to direct a new documentary from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment about the first couple of television — Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz — the original idea was to explore Ball’s achievements as a performer and businesswoman who shattered the glass ceiling.

But Lucie Arnaz, Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, who has long managed her parents’ estate, wasn’t keen on the estate entering the partnership under that framing.

“I said, ‘That’s not gonna fly with us,’” recalls Arnaz, who was also involved in the making of the recent biopic “Being the Ricardos.” “It seemed disingenuous because my mother didn’t really enjoy that. And she didn’t ask for that. She didn’t want that. And she got rid of that as quick as she could. So I said: If you start up that road, you’re gonna hit a wall. We finally decided what the focus should be — the relationship between the two of them and how brilliant it was, and this amazing thing they created. But how come they couldn’t make it work? Because they did stay together [as] soulmates for a long, long time — until they died, basically.”


When Howard finally did approach Poehler about her interest in directing it, the multihyphenate funnywoman wondered how she could find her way into the beloved “I Love Lucy” couple who have received plenty of appraisal in various formats through the decades. Arnaz had even contributed to the catalog nearly 30 years ago with a scrapbook film called “Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie” featuring interviews with the family and friends who knew her parents the best.

“There’s been lots and lots of coverage of Lucy and Desi,” says Poehler. “So it was really about: What would be a new way in or a way that, creatively, felt like the right thing?”

Her solution became focused on deconstructing the outsized “icon” and “trailblazer” labels that followed them.

Now available to stream on Amazon Prime, the introspective new film takes a deep dive into the sitcom power couple’s illustrious personal and creative partnership, looking at how they met, fell in love and built a TV empire that kindled an enduring legacy, as well as the turmoil that plagued it. The documentary boasts a trove of home movies, audio recordings and photographs — much of it provided by Lucie Arnaz — and contains interviews with her as well as entertainment industry greats like Carol Burnett, Bette Midler and Norman Lear. It arrives less than three months after the release of Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos,” which earned Oscar nominations for stars Nicole Kidman and Javier Barden.

In an interview with The Times, Poehler and Arnaz discuss the importance of revisiting the story of television’s golden couple now, the lessons of their enduring love story and how the documentary goes deeper than “Being the Ricardos.”

“Lucy and Desi,” an entertaining documentary directed by Amy Poehler, explores the lives of TV legends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

March 3, 2022

When I think of “I Love Lucy,” I think of being in my family’s living room with my grandma, who only spoke Spanish, and I just remember her belly laughs — it didn’t matter that she didn’t know what they were saying most of the time. Amy, what memory comes to mind when you think of “I Love Lucy”?


Poehler: I always say that “I Love Lucy” felt like it came with your TV. Like, it was always on the TV. I think this is what is so interesting about great art. Because it connects really with the idea of frankly, a family in general, which is great TV, great art, you keep revisiting it, and you change the way you feel about it or how you see it or how it affects you. So I, like most people, watched, you know, my parents and grandparents watched it. And then I watched it as a young person watching for just how it was made. And then now as an older woman, I watched it in a completely different way. And Lucie talked about how her perspective on her family now is of course different than it was 20 years ago. It’s like art and family are connected in that if you hold it up the light, it looks different every time. And so my hope is that I continue to have a relationship with that show in different ways. You know, just in the same way you can picture watching it with your grandmother. There will probably be a day where you’ll be watching with your grandchildren. And that’s what’s cool about art.

A black-and-white photo of a woman and a man sitting in chairs outside.
A still from the Amazon Studios documentary “Lucy and Desi” shows Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz at a press conference in 1953.
(Los Angeles Examiner Collection)

Many people will come to this documentary after they’ve seen “Being the Ricardos.” Amy, did you have a sense of the ground Aaron was covering? And did it influence or shape any decisions you made with the documentary?

Poehler: No, not really.

Arnaz: Most of the time we were working on the documentary, the script was unfinished, and when they started filming, we didn’t connect those dots. The documentary is really a much deeper dive. Aaron Sorkin decided to take a slice of life. He took one week, and he kind of crammed a lot of stuff into it. But he didn’t really explore the reasons why things happen. He showed us some stuff that happened and he made it very dramatic. And it was wonderful to watch. It was a brilliant, wonderful movie. But Amy tried to answer some more questions. He didn’t actually do that. It’s a different experience completely. And I’m so glad that they’re out there at the exact same time. Because the documentary totally balances what you don’t necessarily get with the movie. It’s just so lucky that they happened when they did because they weren’t supposed to be the same time. We’ve been working on the feature film for over six years. And the documentary came along a couple years before COVID happened. And I had no idea that they were going to crash into the world at the same time.

When you’re telling a story that’s already been told in memoirs or movies or podcasts, how do you approach the challenge of bringing something new to the story? Or do you quickly realize that finding something new can’t really be the goal?

Poehler: We’re basically doing a doc on two people, right? So we have this amount of time to tell the big giant line. And there’s so much to tell, and so many places we couldn’t even fully investigate in a way we would have loved to have done, but I think the goal was to remind everybody that this is a man and a woman — these were two people. When you start to talk about trailblazers and geniuses and icons— those words just flatten everything out to a Halloween costume.


I was really hoping that people would feel connected to these people, see themselves in them, realize what a modern couple they are and continue to be. And I know from my experience, I’ll watch any doc about anything if I’m invested in the relationship and the people and the point of view. But I do check out and disconnect when I’m being told how unique and special and trailblaze-y everyone is — sometimes, to me, unless they’re like Stephen Hawking or this incredible astronaut that are just like one of a kind, we’re all people, we’re all really complicated, we all have big feelings, we all take big swings and make mistakes and have failures and love and all that stuff. I was just trying to bring everything a little bit back down to earth. And because we had Lucie to help give us perspective on what it was like, because everybody understands what it’s like to be part of a family that goes through change. We love to put famous people over here and then non-famous people over here, as if there’s a big difference between them, and there certainly isn’t. So, Lucie was that bridge for us, emotionally in the piece, which was to be a person who observed the circus, but also just keeping us centered, and grounded throughout. I was really grateful for that.

A woman and a man standing outside a Hollywood studio building with a sign that says "Desilu Studios."
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz stand outside Desilu Studios.
(Leonard McCombe / The Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock)

Why do you think it’s so important for us to revisit their story now?

Poehler: Lucy and Desi were two outsiders — a woman and a Cuban-American running a room in the 1950s when all the gatekeepers looked the same. And here were two skilled people who felt like they really deserved the success because they had worked really hard for it and had already been married 10 years before America really, really met them in that way as a couple. And that’s really, really exciting to me. And certainly, they were a product of their times as people in the ’50s and ’60s were, but Lucy and Desi had a long career and long life with each other as married partners and as friends and co-workers, but then also in the business. You’re able to kind of see how the business changes — how there’s more faces, there’s more stories, there’s more opportunity. Whether or not they were consciously trying to break down barriers and open doors, they certainly did. People like your grandmother heard on American TV somebody speaking Spanish, and that meant something to her. All those things, I think makes it feel very, very of the moment, for sure.

Arnaz: What came to mind immediately was that when you finish watching this — I don’t know if this was the intention when they all set upon doing it, but it was the result — there’s so much love in this film. Oh my God, you can’t not be totally moved. People I’ve shown it to, they can’t speak for a few minutes afterwards. It’s very moving. And there’s so much love, which is incredible, because there was incredible sadness — not everything turned out like a happy ending. It wasn’t a “once upon a time.” And boy, this world needs love. It really needs to see things that are full of unconditional love at this moment on our planet. And I think that it’s kind of a miracle that Lucy and Desi or “I Love Lucy” or some form of that combination pops up into our consciousness when we need it the most.

Aaron Sorkin explores the personal and professional lives of the iconic “I Love Lucy” stars in Amazon’s “Being the Ricardos.”

Nov. 11, 2021

Something that struck me from the documentary you did in the ’90s, Lucie, were the lightbulb moments of things you were learning about your parents. Are there things you’re still learning about them?

Arnaz: The whole reason I did the documentary was to find out more about them because I really did not know. They were so, so busy. And the time we did have together, I was too young to care. Until you get to be 40-something, you don’t even care about your parents’ past. You don’t ask those questions and then it’s too late, usually. All I could do is interview people who knew them, who grew up with them, who worked with them, and ask them all these questions. And I learned a lot. I walked a mile in their shoes. And it changed me as a human being. It changed me. And I really thought, it’s fine if I do this and it’s just for me. But when I finished with it, I thought, jeez, this could be good for everybody. Because, like Amy said, believe it or not, our folks were just normal folks. We had the same problems y’all have. It’s the same world, same life — better shoes. I used to tell people, “Yeah, we had some perks, but so what? We had a lot of other s— too that went down.”

A black-and-white photo of a woman and a man on a Hollywood set.
Desi Arnaz tells the “I Love Lucy” studio audience something about the scene they’re about to witness, then introduces his wife and co-star, Lucille Ball.
(Bettmann Archive)

Amy, tell me about the archival footage to which you had access — I imagine it was immense, so how do you figure out where to start? What qualities were needed to tell their story as you saw it?

Poehler: We really wanted to rely on Lucy’s and Desi‘s voices as much as we could, even though I strongly believe that most people are unreliable narrators about their own life. [But] you can still learn a lot by how people say things, what they don’t say. And I think that hearing their voice kept them alive throughout the piece because that was important — that they felt like they were around. Lucie gave us incredible access to so much sound material. And we use the show a lot in an attempt to kind of show at times, how thinly you could slice real life and life on the show; and then how, other times, they were playing opposite of what was actually happening in real life. We were also able just to show them at work — how they like to work, how they perform, what it looks like.

As a woman in the creative industry, what about Lucy’s story, or even Desi’s story, resonates with you?

Poehler: I related to what it felt like to be a working mother. I related to what it felt like slowly figuring out how to run your own production company as an actor. There was so much that I related to and I like to think that at Paper Kite [Poehler’s production company], what we like to produce and tell is very specific stories. There are so many women who have these incredible specific stories and, frankly, I was also very interested in showing people that there was life after “I Love Lucy.” In general, women in their 50s, of which I am one, are often at a really incredible, rich and productive time in their lives. And I think that it’s very, very interesting to stay with Lucy and Desi’s story during that time because there’s so much more ahead, there’s so much more to talk about. And, I mean, I love them. I hope that when you watch the film, you feel like you’re spending time with them. I truly have such high respect for how hard it was, the big swings they took and they respected each other until the end.

Highlighting their final phone call was such an emotional moment.

Arnaz: I don’t even think it would have affected you quite that way if Amy hadn’t created such a beautiful piece up to that moment, so that you cared so deeply about these people individually. You really cared that they still loved each other, you really rooted for them to have a phone call like that at the end. And if you had just heard about that phone call, without all the backstory, it would have been: “Oh, that’s sweet.” But it wouldn’t have moved you that way. She did such a great job of building up to that.


It just happened to be a story I told [Amy] that day. But at the end of everything else, it’s just what you wanted to feel. And it’s true. It was a true thing. We didn’t make that up.

A woman and a man sitting and laughing in a living room
An image from Amy Poehler’s 2022 documentary “Lucy and Desi” shows Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz checking a script for a sequence to be filmed for television.
(Bettmann Archive)

There are younger folks in their teens or 20s who are probably not as familiar with Lucy and Desi’s story — their relationship, their body of work or how they changed the television business. What do you hope they take away from this film?

Poehler: Their relationship — loving each other at that time, in real time — was a really incredible signal that times were changing. And I think the way they fought for each other, behind the camera and in front of the camera, was something. And Lucie, this might be weird, but your parents are really hot. They were a hot couple. I think the younger generation, sometimes when something’s told to them, like, “This is very important” and “They were real trailblazers,” everyone’s like, “OK ...” But I just feel like they are a very modern couple in a different era. They almost felt like time travelers and they were dropped into this business and really changed it and I don’t think people know that [the] way we shoot television, the way we watch television has not changed that much from how they made it, and they made the big decisions. They created this template for us. I hope that younger viewers enjoy the story of what it looks like to love deeply and to take big risks, to not let people tell you what you can and can’t do, to stick to your guns. And go in and and be reminded that sometimes it only takes a few people to make really big changes.

Lucille Ball’s daughter, an executive producer on ‘Being the Ricardos,’ helped the actress capture her mother’s strength

Feb. 15, 2022

I know these days we all struggle remembering what happened last week, but some of my most vivid memories, weirdly, are from when I was 3 or 4. Lucie, you were very young during “I Love Lucy’s” run, but are there any memories from the set in the later years that come to mind?

Arnaz: The show started when I started. When I would be old enough to actually be allowed to get all dressed up and come down and see Mommy and Daddy on the show, we were 4 and 5 years old. But I do remember being in the bleachers and I remember Daddy doing the warmup and introducing my brother [Desi Arnaz Jr.] and Desi was a year and a half younger than I was. He’d have his little suit on, his cute little hat, and do one of those little boy bows, with the hand in the front and the hand in the back, very gentlemanly like. And then my dad would say: “And my beautiful daughter, Lucie Desiree Arnaz,” And I was nowhere to be found. I had crawled under the bleacher seats. I was that shy. I remember that vividly.


What do you think your parents would think of the recent projects that have put them back in the spotlight?

Arnaz: It’s always hard to speak for other people. I can only guess. I can only go by the kind of people that they were. And I think they were incredibly grateful people; they were always grateful for their fans, and the recognition that they were given for the work that they did. And kind of awestruck by how long that popularity lasted, even up into the ’80s. So I’m sure that if they’re watching, I kind of tend to think they are just blown away that 70 years later, there is really almost a larger appreciation than there even was then. It’s different. It’s deeper now. It’s really not surface, put-you-on-a-pedestal, love-you kind of love. It’s: I love you with your warts and all kind of love. So that’s a lot like “I Love Lucy.” And I think that would make them very happy — that they were remembered for the good, the bad, the ugly, for everything they did that was phenomenal, and some of the mistakes that you could say they made personally, or professionally, and still adored, and still respected after all these years.