BY JIM LONGWORTH
Keith Thibodeaux. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Only in Hollywood could a 6-year-old Louisiana Cajun get hired to play the son of a Cuban bandleader, but it happened to Keith Thibodeaux, and his life was never the same after that.
Thibodeaux was a child prodigy who, by age 3, was earning $500 a week playing drums with Horace Heidt’s orchestra. Three years later he landed the role of Little Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy, and he continued playing the part on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour until it wrapped in 1960. From 1962 until 1966 Thibodeaux portrayed Opie Taylor’s pal Johnny Paul Jason on The Andy Griffith Show, then completed high school before going on tour with David and the Giants, a Christian rock band. Thibodeaux met and married Kathy Denton, an accomplished ballerina, in 1976, and 10 years later they founded Ballet Magnificat!, an acclaimed dance company based in Jackson, Miss., which has just opened a school in Brazil. I first met Thibodeaux in 1979 when he appeared on my morning television show in Richmond, Va. We reconnected in 2017 and remain in touch.
How many kids auditioned for the role of Little Ricky?
Keith Thibodeaux: I think there were about 200 until they got to me, and after playing drums with Desi, they said, “We’ve found Little Ricky!”
What gave you the edge? Was it just the drums?
There were a couple of factors. I looked like Desi Arnaz, and I looked like their child Desi Jr. Also, I played the drums, which was a gift that other kids maybe didn’t possess. But another important reason was my faith in God, even at an early age. I asked my dad, “Why do you think God picked me to be Little Ricky?” And Dad said, “Well, God has a purpose for you, Keith.”
How did Lucy and Desi treat you on and off the set?
I was treated like part of their family. On set I conducted myself as a part of the cast, but then off set, I was a trusted member of their real family who could come over and play with Lucie and Desi Jr. on weekends.
You never received a screen credit. Is that because Desi wanted viewers to think that you were his real son?
Yeah. Back in those days it was a big story when Lucy was pregnant with Desi Jr., and so they wrote her pregnancy into the show. Little Ricky was introduced on the show at the same time that Desi Jr. was born, so they created a story within a story, and that became the fabric of Little Ricky with ties to Desi Jr.
I heard that Lucy and Desi fought so much that it affected your work.
I would see the strife at their home and was very sensitive to it, so I started to stutter as a result of that stress and from being in that environment with them. So Lucy brought in a hypnotist to see if he could create some therapy for me. I remember he used the classic watch-and-chain hypnosis. It was old school and kind of odd.
Did it work?
Well, I continued to do the show, so yeah, I guess it did. [Laughs]
What was your favorite Lucy episode?
The one with George Reeves as Superman was my favorite.
Even though you were a TV star yourself, I bet meeting Superman was really special.
Oh man, it was the biggest thing for me. I lost track that he was acting, and I thought he was Superman. He genuinely liked kids, and that really impressed me about him.
Do you still get fan mail?
I still get a steady stream of fan mail, but you’d be surprised at how many little kids come up to me. Their moms have shown them DVDs of Lucy and tell them, “That’s Little Ricky.” And the kids look up at this old man and go, “Really?” [Laughs]
Jim Longworth is an author, talk show host, columnist and a voting member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Thibodeaux penned the 1994 autobiography Life After Lucy.
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