Lucie - Desi Update
Keeping Up with
The following article is reprinted from A&U (Art & Understanding: America's AIDS Magazine), July 2001 Issue. It is reproduced here with the permission of the magazine and author Dann Dulin.
Not Your Typical Hollywood Brat
ACTOR, SINGER, PRODUCER LUCIE ARNAZ TELLS A&U's DANN DULIN HOW SHE SURVIVES THE LOSS OF LOVED ONES, AND WHY SHE IS A MOTHER ON A MISSION
Lucie Arnaz is in deep thought. She gazes out the restaurant window at the London drizzle. "I made a list one time for the AIDS Quilt. I had twenty names on the list, and that was ten years ago," she says softly but purposefully. "And those aren't just acquaintances or people that I used to know. These are like my agents, a cousin, hairdressers, and directors. I've lost track now. I've been touched by AIDS probably more than a lot of people, oddly enough."
Arnaz is nestled at a corner table of an Italian restaurant across from London's Theatre Royal Drury Lane where she is appearing in a new musical production of The Witches of Eastwick. Inspired by the 1987 film, which starred Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Cher, the show was adapted from the John Updike novel. The production "flies high" according to one critic, and, indeed, there's a mystical moment when Lucie's character, Alexandra Spofford, flies out and eerily hovers over the audience. Another critic hailed Lucie as having a "ravishing voice and figure." Indeed, her debut album in the early '90s, Just in Time, also received outstanding reviews. Seated across fromme, Arnaz looks quite dapper in her black cotton sweater, gray franny dress, and suitable brown boots for this typically windy, rainy day in the British capital.
Lucie turns fifty in July -- hard to believe because she looks as though she just stepped out of a high school pep rally. She still has the youthful vivaciousness of Kim Carter, Lucie's character on Here's Lucy, her first career break in the late '60s. She has just finished her matinee performance at the Drury Lane and now has a few hours to kick back and enjoy a seafood salad and some pasta before she takes to the stage again for the evening performance. She momentarily complains about her parched throat. The show is physically demanding on her voice, yet she still delivers a hell of a song. During our meal, she is forthright and down to earth. I feel as though I am talking to an old pal.
Though Arnaz may always be known first and foremost as the daughter of Hollywood legends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, she's earned her show business stripes in her own right, receiving numerous distinguished acting honors including the prestigious Sarah Siddons Award. The Witches of Eastwick is just one link in the long line of stage productions she's appeared in, including They're Playing Our Song by Neil Simon and Marvin Hamlisch, Master Class by Terrance McNally, and My One and Only with Tommy Tune. Arnaz has made several acclaimed television movies and films, as well. Last year, she portrayed the mother of Freddie Prinze Jr.'s character in the theatrical release Down to You. Arnaz has also earned her stripes as a producer. She and her husband, actor Laurence Luckinbill, formed Arluck Entertainment eleven years ago, which produced the documentary, Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie. It took four years to produce and was honored with an Emmy award. Still with all these successes, she credits her three children with Luckinbill, Simon, Joseph, and Katharine, in addition to Luckinbill's sons from a previous marriage, Nicholas and Ben, as her greatest accomplishments.
Another of Lucie's great accomplishments has been her relentless effort for AIDS causes. Consistently lending her name and talent to benefits, she donated a portion of her mother's substantial estate to Caring For Babies With AIDS. The disease first touched Arnaz's life in 1982. Richard Christopher, a dear friend, co-performer in the Broadway production of Seesaw, and roommate, was mysteriously and rapidly losing weight. "I had been too scared to get an apartment by myself, so Richard and I got one together!" she says with a laugh, momentarily reminiscing. "But he kept getting colds, coughs, flus -- and couldn't shake them." She goes on, her voice turning fretful. "He went to different doctors, took more tests, and then within two months he was in the hospital and couldn't breathe. He couldn't say two words without coughing. I remember looking at him and knowing he wasn't going to make it. And they still wouldn't tell me what he had." She pauses thoughtfully. "Richard died November 23, 1982. I remember it vividly because at the time I was very pregnant with my second child, Joseph."
It's not friends with AIDS Arnaz has lost. Her grandparents are now gone, as are her in-laws. Her father died in 1986, and her mother in 1989. "Mom was so well known and so well loved by so many people," she says reflectively. "I knew from the day I was born her death would never be private. Sort of in my soul there was always a part of me thinking, 'Oh, brother, the day she goes…' In one sense her passing was easier because the whole world was mourning with me. It was like having the largest funeral in the world -- everybody putting their arms around me and telling me how much they loved my mom. On the other hand, because she was so public I sort had to keep up a good front and put myself into the gear of taking care of the world. It was interesting."
Arnaz peers out the window, which exhibits a grand view of the Drury Lane entrance, and continues: "People would come up to me and be crying so hard that I would end up taking care of them. It was hard to get through because there wasn't time to privately mourn. So I didn't mourn mom's death for months. I postponed it somehow, and I think probably I'm still working it out. I'm the kind of person that if there's a job to be done, I say, 'Come on, let's get it done.'" Her voice takes on a feisty verve. "I have a lot of my mother in me. Her attitude was always 'Come on. Get over it. Move on.'"
In the past twenty years, the specter of loss has been a frequent visitor in Arnaz's life. She has stood at the bedsides of many people she loved as they took their last breaths. "It gets more and more difficult, but you deal with it. It's like little drops of water in a glass. Sometimes the drops at the bottom are people more important to you than even some of the drops at the top. And then it's like for no particular reason, one last drop goes in and you just lose it."
The last drop for Arnaz happened a few years ago when her agent Eric Schepard, succumbed to AIDS. "He was such a help to me in my life, and a great support, " she explains. "I remember I cried for days on end. It was odd because there were other people I was just as close to who had died, but Eric's death brought all the rest of the deaths back to the surface. I just wanted to go on a rooftop and yell, 'Stop!'" She takes a sip of mineral water and continues: "There's no easy way to deal with death. You just have to feel it and go through it. Memorial services help because then you can talk about the person. And if I know their passing is near, I try to spend as much of the remaining time with the person as possible and say my goodbyes."
What about her own demise? "Well, at this point, since I've seen so much dying I guess I've gotten a bit more immune to it than I should be at this stage of my life. But I'm not particularly afraid of it. I have been to a couple of mediums and those who talk to the dead -- I truly believe in that. They have told me specific things about people I've lost. So death has started to become a little easier for me because I'm quite sure that these people are still around watching over me. I do feel them around me and it's comforting. Death is a natural process of living and none of us know when we're going to be there. Dying bothers me only in the sense that I might die before I can see my children through their most difficult years. And it scares me because my husband is quite a bit older than I am. I think about that sometimes and get depressed. I'd like to grow old together but the chances are that might not happen," she whispers playfully. "Of course, you never know, maybe I'll get hit by a bus and go first! You never know!" Her eyes pop and she smirks gleefully then adds, "Gee, it could be a London bus. Look left, look left," reminding herself of the Brits' opposite-side-of-the-road driving, but not catching the blunder that it should be "Look right, look right."
Lucie enjoys being a temporary Brit, but even though her family visits London periodically, she misses them. Talking about the kids, she notes that they are in their teens now, which can be a risky time for children, especially in this age of AIDS. Nevertheless, she says, "They know more than most adults about the AIDS epidemic! I've had so many friends die and they knew a lot of them. Plus, they themselves have friends who are living with HIV and AIDS. We have this one friend who we have said goodbye to four times. He has had all the opportunistic infections and survived. He comes through every time." She takes a bite of her Tagliatelle alla Contadina (Italian pasta with mushrooms and veggies in tomato sauce), then continues: "As a family we talk about AIDS a lot. The kids know that it doesn't just happen to 'somebody else.' They're at an age where they're dating, and they take this disease seriously enough. Are they wearing condoms? Let's hope so. I'm not on their dates to watch. I just hope to God that they're scared enough from everything they've seen in life to not be foolish."
Since the latest numbers point to a rise in HIV infection among teenagers and Latinos, how would she address these communities about the AIDS epidemic? "I am extremely proud of my Latin heritage," says Arnaz, "but I do not assume that, just because I am one-half Cuban, the Latin community considers me a significant family member. I don't have much opportunity to hang with the Latino crowd, so I wouldn't want to venture any guesses on their motivations or mindset when it comes to the issue of AIDS. Latins are inherently bright and forward moving people, and it would be in their nature to be ahead of the curve on doing 'the smart thing.'" The waiter interrupts her comment to inquire if we're finished, then he removes the dishes and departs. Lucie's train of thought is not broken. "Anyone, Latinos especially, who at this point are still ignoring statistics and having unprotected sex shouldn't consider themselves very successful or smart people. AIDS is a deadly disease. Is it worth taking any chances? If you thing you're immune, go read a list of people who've died from AIDS and check their history about how they were infected. They didn't even know the infection route, most of them. Some people didn't find out they had AIDS until ten years after they were infected, and they only found out because they were having an operation for something else and needed a blood test."
Arnaz is now running late for her second show. She apologizes, extends her thanks for the interview, andbids farewell as she wraps herself in a light tan raincoat. Still pondering on her last thought, she makes a final point before she dashes: "We all have to be safe. AIDS can happen to any one of us."
Finishing my last bites of food, I watch as she crosses the street, the gusty wind thrashing her hair and coat, then glimpse the theatre marquee with her name in lights. This is not your usual assembly line, factory-stamped Made in Hollywood kid. Lucie's learned her lessons well, and has overcome life's sorrows with compassion, strength, and activism.
THE LUCIE LOG
Lucie gives a one-word answer for people who have been close to her:
- Vivian Vance - inspiration
- Desi Arnaz Jr. - indomitable
- Tommy Tune - soulmate
- Desi Arnaz Sr. - passion
- Herself - spontaneous
A word to describe your mom's character, Lucy Ricardo, on I Love Lucy: Healing
Your favorite Lucille Ball movie: "The Big Street"
Your favorite childhood sitcom: I Married Joan
Your favorite place to disappear: Hawaii
On keeping fit: "I have promised myself for twenty-five years to go to yoga class. Whenever I was in a show with Tommy Tune he was always doing Temple to the Sun God and we all would do it with him. It was good. And now I really need it because we're on a raked stage (for "Witches of Eastwick") that goes up at quite a steep angle. People are dropping like flies with neck and back injuries. I notice it with me too. I'm not a great exercise freak, although I do take vitamins and eat healthy."
On seeing her first Broadway show: "It was either "Once Upon a Mattress" (with Carol Burnett) or "The Music Man" (with Robert Preston). Difficult to remember as Mom was in rehearsals for "Wildcat," and I got to see many shows all in one week."
On the CBS-TV movie about her mom and dad: "This movie was an awful way for CBS to treat Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz when they put CBS on the map. It was a tabloid version of their lives. They never explained why any of this might have happened. At least in my documentary I tried to find out who these people were, and hopefully shed some light on why they were the way they were."
On Las Vegas: "In my twenties it was a real battery charge to go to the old Las Vegas when you would spend the weekend seeing Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Steve and Edie, Totie Fields, Wayne Newton, Keely Smith. Then it wasn't hotel-magic, it was people-magic."
On her acting career: "When I was fifteen, I went to New York and saw Angela Lansbury in "Mame." That was the deciding factor for what I was going to do with my life. I said, 'That's it!'"
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor (Los Angeles) of A&U.
This article is in the July issue of A&U. To order a copy, call 888-245-4333 or 518-426-9010, or email email@example.com or write:
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Photo by Augustus Buttera.
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