Monday, April 30, 1990
USA TODAY, by Tom Green
HOLLYWOOD – Here’s “I Love Lucy,” the home video. Sort of. On March 10, 1951, a five-months-pregnant Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz, with $5,000 out of their own pockets, filmed the pilot for the CBS series that would eventually invent the live audience, three-camera TV sitcom.
“You can see why they got the job,” says daughter Lucie Arnaz, who first saw the pilot just a few weeks before its public debut tonight on CBS (10 EDT/PDT).
For almost 40 years, the only kinescope or motion picture record of the 34-minute pilot was lost, surfacing last Christmas.
Tonight the network offers a one-hour special that includes the first airing of the pilot. Arnaz is host and the show is taped on a replica set of the Ricardos’ living room.
“It was kind of wonderful and spooky to be sitting there,” says Arnaz, with whom Lucy was pregnant in 1951. “Everything looks the same except that big armchair with those funny circles on it isn’t there.”
The pilot is clumsy, obviously low-budget — watch for the collapse of a tissue paper wall and for Desi to break up when Lucy makes fun of his English. The slight story line is very familiar to Lucy fans: she wants in the act when bandleader Ricky gets a TV audition.
CBS nixed the pilot because it didn’t want Desi, but agreed to sell Lucy and Desi the airtime if they could get a client. They found cigarette-maker Philip Morris and added neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz.
The pilot surfaced when former CBS Entertainment chief Bud Grant was having Christmas dinner at his fiancee’s brother’s house. Joanne Perez, the widow of Spanish clown Pepito, who is in the pilot, mentioned it.
“Joanne didn’t know she had the only copy,” says Grant, now head of Grant/Tribune Productions. CBS owned the rights to the pilot, but Perez, now in her 80s, had the film. Grant made a deal for her.
“Pepito was the caretaker of all the memorabilia,” Arnaz says. “After he retired, he became my father’s boat captain. He had everything filed and stored, but when he died, she left everything as it was. They used to show the pilot after dinner.”
Because it was “too early” after her mother’s death, Arnaz twice balked at hosting the special, Grant says. When the producers wanted to use a clip that she owned, he says, she saw the script and loved it.
“I cried,” says Arnaz, who last Thursday, to mark the first anniversary of her mother’s death, bought a page in the Hollywood trades to run a photo she had taken of Lucy in her ever-present sunglasses. (“I look at that picture as the way I remember my mom, our Nana.”)
Arnaz hesitated on the special, she says, because she has a pilot herself for CBS, an ensemble hour drama with comedy, Sons and Daughters.
There also is a TV movie about Ball’s life being developed for CBS by producer Larry Thompson that Arnaz is not involved in but would like to be. The project is sensitive, she says.
“But once I read this script,” she says, “I told them that if anybody else does it, I’ll picket your studio.”