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Interview: Ben Mankiewicz Talks about Lucille Ball and Season Three of The Plot Thickens

When TCM jumped into the podcast game, I’ll admit, I was bit surprised. When they put forward two solid podcasts seasons centered on new and interesting content, I was impressed. Well kids, just like that, Turner Classic Movies has upped their once game again with the next season of ‘The Plot Thickens’. This time out, the team turns their focus to one of the titans of classic television, Lucille Ball.

Lucille Ball is a figure who for many people has always been there. Her work on I Love Lucy is heralded as some of the greatest to cross the small screen and even seventy years since the situation comedy debuted, it continues to hold a fond place in the hearts of so, so many. At the same time, the syndicated staying power of I Love Lucy has kept Lucille Ball (and then husband Desi Arnaz) in the public consciousness. As the decades pass, however, their star personas have become increasingly defined through the lens of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and in truth, they are so much more than that.

In crafting this in-depth study of Lucille Ball’s life, the team at Turner Classic Movies tells a story which isn’t often told. As mentioned, Lucille Ball and ‘Lucy’ have become one and the same and there’s real tragedy in the blurring of those lines. Certainly, ‘Lucy’ is representative of groundbreaking work on television, but in reality, Lucille Ball was so much more than simply Lucy. She was a talented and tenacious actress who survived for nearly twenty years even before I Love Lucy premiered. In fact, after listening to their first two episodes, I’d go as far as to say that TCM has made Lucille Ball’s story far more interesting and complex than any story simply looking at Lucy. This week, the Ticklish Team was lucky enough to sit in on a discussion with TCM icon and The Plot Thickens host Ben Mankiewicz about the new podcast, I Love Lucy and most importantly, Lucille Ball.

Lucille Ball has become so defined by her work on I Love Lucy. Did you get the feeling she struggled to make films in her later years?

I think Lucy could have made whatever she wanted to make. If she’d wanted to make more movies, I think she would have made more movies. I think she… felt comfortable in television.

And because of the nature of I Love Lucy, not only its runaway rating success, but also its massive and lasting cultural legacy, (it is) by that standard (that) we judge her next two shows. The fact is, those two shows were extremely successful, right? I mean, they went (multiple) seasons (and) there’s more than a hundred episodes of each of those shows… and they’re pretty good. I mean, they’re not I Love Lucy, but that’s (a) ridiculous standard… it’s like criticizing a quarterback for going 11 and 5 and not winning the Super Bowl.

She could have made more films, there’s no question she could have. She just felt comfortable on TV and let’s be honest… she was 40 when I Love Lucy started. So by the time I Love Lucy’s done she’s in her mid to upper 40s…. then they do the variety show. By the time that’s over, she’s nearly 50. So, so what kind of movie roles were there going to be at that point… that’s obviously Hollywood’s flaw.

What her success on television with I Love Lucy did was (allow) us loose focus of (her) early films (where) she got significant roles because she’s quite good. I mean, they weren’t all great movies, but she’s a talented dramatic actress. She’s obviously a talented comedic actress… (but) her career before I Love Lucy should not be dismissed. It…(gives) you a sense of how talented she was and how willing she was to dive deep into a role. She was a breathtakingly beautiful, sexy, talented Hollywood starlet who then “frumped” herself up. (She took) a gigantic risk at age 40 to jump into television at a time when that was not seen as a thing that would help your movie career… but she made some good movies, no question.

How did making this podcast make you love Lucy more? And then also, what impact do you think it will have on Lucy fans?

I’m… fairly certain that Lucy fans are gonna love it. I hope that even the most diehard Lucy fan is going to learn something they didn’t know…. We all learned a bunch of things that we didn’t know (putting the show together). Even if they know most of it.. this is a different way of telling (the story of) Lucy… Desi… their partnership, and about her life…. before (and after) Desi. Her life after Desi of course still has a lot of Desi in it… his death devastated her and they hadn’t been together (in) 25 years… He mattered to her always.

(Lucy’s competence is really) what got me about (her) and partly… because I hadn’t thought of her in that way. First of all, obviously getting to where she did. She didn’t just… catch a lucky break. She was able to seize her luck because she planned for it and knew what to do with it.

(Lucy) and Desi (were able) to… manage their career in an effective way. It wasn’t branding… it was just getting smart people around them (and) recognizing what needed to happen. The reason that we still talk about Lucy today, in a sense is because of Desi’s brilliance. If that show had been done the way the network wanted (it) to be done, first of all, Desi wouldn’t have been in it. That’s a whole separate issue…. (A) Cuban American immigrant as the love interest of a white woman on television in 1951… not just love interest, they’re married. Everybody knows they’re sleeping together. (This) would have been an issue on television in 1961, in 1971, and in 1981. Maybe it would have happened in 1981, but there would have been network people (who) would have been like, “We can’t do this”... She fought for (him) and that tells you, she must have been pretty powerful at the time…. I’m still stunned that she won.

(They then surrounded) themselves with Madelyn (Pugh) and Bob (Carroll Jr.) (as well) as Jess (Oppenheimer)… making sure that the show was run by good, competent, smart people. This small core of people producing 39 episodes a year was staggering.

(Lucy) was sometimes hard to work with…. but it strikes me that it was her insistence on quality. (It) doesn’t mean that she couldn’t have been nicer sometimes (to) people, but it wasn’t because she thought her trailer should be bigger. I don’t admire yelling at people…(though) it seems Desi was the person she yelled at most and (he) earned some of that.

They were unbelievably competent… if Desi doesn’t insist on shooting (I Love Lucy) on film, then none of this happens. We can’t watch those shows in reruns (because) they wouldn’t look good enough… that’s why we don’t watch other shows from the early 1950s.That’s (an example of) Desi… understanding it, getting it (and) figuring it out.

So…the entirety of their humanity is what surprised me, plus… all those family challenges Lucy had growing up (and) why you would see her fight so hard to keep her extended family together. Clearly what Lucy craved was home and that’s also why she fought so hard to keep Desi in line… even when it seemed pretty clear that Desi was not a guy you could be married to.

Desi is complicated guy too, I’m not excusing it…. we talked to Aaron Sorkin about this in the podcast. Desi came from a culture where the expectations of American domesticity were really foreign… that was a challenge. Mostly what I got from Desi is (he was) smart, thoughtful (and) visionary… Lucy understood that he was visionary and she learned from him and then (when) he was out of the picture she became this bold, independent woman executive and (in) Hollywood at (that) time that just (didn’t) happen.

What movie would you recommend to people who might know her as ‘Lucy’, but might not necessarily be familiar with her film work?

Sure, Lured… I believe the first time I introduced it on TCM I said ‘Lurid’… why? That’s not how you spell lurid… but nobody corrected me. I was watching it years ago and I was like, ‘What am I doing? What’s wrong with me? ‘.

(Then there’s) The Big Street… (the) movies where you really see (her) dramatic capability and… what she what she could have been...(then) definitely Stage Door. I love backstage movies. (They) give you a real sense of the artist’s life… there is this realism. (With) Ginger Rogers (and) Katharine Hepburn… you get some heavyweight performances and Lucy… she’s such a critical role in this. She’s funny (and) she’s smart. Ironically, she’s the one who goes and gets a husband… (that’s) not what Lucy would have done. Certainly even before Desi she had that chance… she was involved (romantically) with directors (and) producers…men who could have made her life easy…. Five Came Back (is) another another one (where) you know where you see her do something different.

What’s the most obscure or strange fact that you learned over the course of recording the podcast?

The horrible tragedy that defined the family’s life in Celoron… Lucy wasn’t there, but it destroyed the family. The most interesting fact which (isn’t) obscure is how Lucy (survived) a blacklist scare…. There’s more evidence against Lucy than there was against almost everyone who lost their careers, but she didn’t. (Her) survival… and how that played out… is unbelievably compelling.

She (also) talked her mom into letting her go to from Jamestown New York and into (Manhattan) to take acting classes. Bette Davis (was) in her class… and Bette Davis was really good… shocking development. Lucy was intimidated by Bette and by the other talented women there. The teachers… sent a letter back with Lucy (saying), ‘This is a waste of our time and Lucy’s time’…. But (Lucy) persevered. I love…the tiny details (of) surviving in New York as a model…. she was doing everything she could to make a buck…mixing ketchup with water to get tomato soup… those hard luck artists stories always resonate.

(Then there’s) the relationship… she had with Desi after the divorce and how much Desi’s death affected her (even) 25 years after they split up. I had things in my head about Lucy and Desi (knowing) how bad a husband he was and… how much she must have been… ready to purge him, but no. It would be fair to call them soulmates.

The first two episodes are incredibly informative. What did the research process for this season look like? Did you have any challenges putting this together?

I wasn’t in all these conversations… but when Lucy came up there was a sense that (her’s) was a good story to tell … ( and it) was important to tell a woman’s story. We did Bogdanovich and we did ‘The Plot Thickens’ (about De Palma)….and we wanted to mix it up. (We thought about) who can we interview. There were some people who (are) still alive who we went after and may well get at one point. Our researcher, a guy named James Sheridan (knew) a ton about Lucy and when (she) came up James had all this information about what… was available about Lucy.

So we decided to examine whether we ought to do Lucy and as soon as we started… learning by digging… we got some interviews with her, including one with a… journalist named Dotson Rader. He did an interview with her in the 80s that I think he turned into like a magazine piece. He has hours and hours of interviews (with Lucy). He kept the tapes (and) they’re enormously high quality. (He later) donated them to Columbia University. We called Columbia and got the tape… it’s like a new interview with Lucy because (few) people have heard (it).

The the key to our first season was me sitting down for 15 hours with Peter Bogdanovich and obviously we can’t do that with Lucy, (but) we do feel like we have Lucy… to say nothing of all (her) appearances on talk shows and so forth. We have Lucy being quite candid about Lucy.

The biggest challenge is putting (the story) together in a compelling manner. We are (creating) episodic radio, ten 35 to 45 minute episodes… where each one makes you think, ‘I can’t wait till the next one!’. That’s the challenge for everybody making podcasts and I think we think we accomplished it (with)… all this great stuff.

If you had the opportunity to sit down and interview Lucille Ball, what would you ask?

I would have spent hours talking about the Blacklist… No question…hours and hours. What that pressure felt like, I mean… it would have lost (her) everything. (She) would have lost the show, which means Desi would have lost the show (and) Desi would have gotten nothing else. He would have gone back to being a bandleader….but she would have been done for a while (and) by the time (she’d be) able to come back, she would have been 50. She wouldn’t have had I Love Lucy to get her new shows. So she likely would have been done.

Lucy and everybody else who (was) blacklisted, never did a damn thing (to) overthrow… or undermine the government (of) the United States…. Capitalism had failed and they, like a million other people, were looking for an alternative, but Lucy survived. Unlike the other writers, producers, actors (and) directors… who were blacklisted, Lucy (meant) money. Right? Executives are (thinking), ‘How do we come up with an explanation that clears her?’; rather than ‘She’s done, pick somebody else’. Nobody else (is going to) come into I Love Lucy… that’s it… you lose the show. CBS obviously didn’t want to lose the show.

(There’s also) that idea of (Lucy) at 39 years old (and) having done a successful radio show. She started to have some success in movies. She signs with Columbia (for a) three picture deal (where) the movies are her movies. They’re tailored to her. She could have done that for a while… but she doesn’t. She goes to television (and) that’s a start over…. (It) is really kissing her movie career goodbye and just taking this huge risk.

Then… (she) made them hire (Desi)… she wanted to keep her family together.(This) was a bold moment in America where we got to see a Cuban immigrant married to a white woman… we didn’t see them being romantic but…later they had a kid…. You know what that means…they slept together….They’re not just married, they’re having sex.What in the world made (her) think at that stage that (she) could insist on (her)… Cuban born husband to be a co-star in a network television show in 1951?

And then … why’d (she) stay with Desi…. I know that answer and I don’t begrudge her. I love that answer…. keep (her) family together. She was tough too. I don’t want to excuse Desi’s behavior…his behavior was gonna exist whether she was a sweetheart all the time or not, but she was tough… They fought (and) they liked arguing… and then they (liked) making-up…

She experienced failure and it’s hard to experience failure when you’ve had so much success. But… people… want to be like, ‘Lucy doesn’t have it any more !? That’s terrible’. Success is brutal in this town… because everything you do is compared to it. (Then) Desi died (not long) after the cancellation of the (last) show… she was devastated… and they hadn’t been together in a quarter century. (If) I talked to her, that’s what I that’s what I’d like to go after.

What do you hope the audience takes away from the podcast after episode ten?

I’d like them to connect emotionally with Lucy… (the) same thing I want (when) I do a live interview . We have some new information in the podcast, there’s no question but but mostly it’s about how you tell it. Does it feel new? And do you feel a connection? That’s what I want an audience to feel. I want people to emotionally connect to Lucy. I want them to emotionally connect to Desi… we have a whole episode on Desi and then obviously he weaves himself in to most of the other episodes, but episode four is Desi’s story.

I want people to feel a connection to it and I want them to (see) their competence. I want people to think afterwards, Desi was a strange dude, but… that guy (was)… a Cuban bandleader who played the drums… at a nightclub. I think (Desi) was a genius… in addition to being a very funny actor. Lucy was this force of nature… (she’s) driven and competent and clear in her understanding of what she needed to succeed and both of them… consistently… elevated the game of all the people around them.

Do you feel there’s a modern equivalent to I Love Lucy?

I don’t think there is one because of the nature of the business. I use this example a lot…I remember the show The Single Guy with Jonathan Silverman. It (aired) in (the) late 1990s (or) maybe early 2000s… on…(the) NBC Thursday night lineup… I think when Friends was on. I (watched) it because Ernest Borgnine was on it. It was fine, (but) it got cancelled because it couldn’t maintain the audience of whatever show was before…. it had like 20 million (viewers)… So NBC cancelled it.

What (we) would do for 18 million viewers (just 15 years later)… (we’d) be the number one show in the country. So obviously, we’ve seen dramatically in a fairly short period of time, how audience’s (have) changed. So (in 1951) when there’s three channels… running three hours of primetime a night, there was nothing like a shared community experience. Every week I Love Lucy was on it was like the Super Bowl. That’s how many people tuned in and checked it out... The wacky travails of the Ricardos was a shared American experience… God bless CBS. This was a rare moment and then we went backwards. They had a real chance to make progress.

I don’t even know what the number one rated show is. (It’s) probably a reality show. Then we get our little worlds. I mean, everybody I know…partially because I yell at them if they’re not… is watching Ted Lasso. But I don’t know how many people actually watch Ted Lasso. A couple million? It’s probably pretty small. The fact is, the country is not talking about Ted Lasso, just my little section of it is… but for Lucy, everybody was.

(Lucy) was the most famous woman in America… it was Lucy, Eleanor Roosevelt (and) Rosa Parks (but) that’s the level that she was on. People felt like they knew her because they were inside her home… they saw her marriage, they saw her give birth, which was amazing, because again, that suggests that she and her Cuban husband had sex.

So I don’t think there is an equivalent. There are certainly… talented stars, who if they’d been around in the 1950s might have been able to catch lightning in a bottle the way she did. Although, lightning in a bottle sounds like it was an accident and it wasn’t an accident. There are certainly great stars, but there’s nothing like (her) now. They never ever will be. It’s partly why that era is so great to celebrate and explore because it is is gone.

***

The third season of The Plot Thickens dropped the first episode of its third season on Tuesday October 12th. It is now available wherever you get your podcasts!

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Kimberly Pierce View All

Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.

You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!

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