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A career colored by Lucy

Oct 1, 2001  •  Post A Comment

I guess “Lucy” was an outsider. When I was a kid in 1953 watching “I Love Lucy,” she sure seemed like one to me. Already obsessed with the psychotic clown Clarabelle on “The Howdy Doody Show,” my next big show-business role model became Lucy Ricardo. At last, a female impersonator who dyed her hair orange, wore obvious false eyelashes and scary red lipstick at home, married a man of another race, got pregnant on television, hung out with her blue-collar neighbors and ran away to Hollywood to pal around with Rock Hudson. As an 8-year-old voyeur, looking ahead to my teenage years was a lot easier because of “Lucy.” I knew you could break the rules.
Her influence on my work is obvious. All the characters in my early films screamed the dialogue at the top of their lungs just like Lucy did on her show. If Edith Massey wasn’t Divine’s unhinged Vivian Vance, you can’t say I didn’t try. “God I wish I lived in Connecticut,” Edie whined in “Polyester,” maybe as a tribute to Lucy’s last home on the original series. Mink Stole and David Lochary dyed their hair Magic-Marker Red and India-Ink Blue because, like their characters in “Pink Flamingos,” I always imagined Lucy loved Ricky “more than her own hair color.” I may be pushing it, but Divine giving “birth” in “Female Trouble” could have been an LSD-influenced flashback to my memory of Little Ricky’s much-heralded arrival on Lucy’s show.
Many of the plot points from Lucy’s episodes also end up in my comedies; getting drunk (“Polyester”), mink coats (“Multiple Maniacs”), charm schools (“Cry-Baby”), kleptomania (“Pecker”). Even “Serial Mom’s” murderous adventures could never have been written without the memory of Lucy Ricardo’s madcap schemes and desperate deceptions.
Lucy always had great guest stars (Tallulah Bankhead, Orson Welles), and I tried following in her footsteps (Joey Heatherton and the closest I could get to Lucy herself-David Nelson from “Ozzie and Harriet”). If my Dreamland Studios moniker for my rag-tag repertory group was kind of a joke, it was only because I secretly wished we could somehow turn ourselves into the pothead version of Desilu.
One thing I know for sure, Gale Gordon (Lucy’s later co-star and original choice for Fred Mertz) wore a mustache that I appropriated and combined with Little Richard’s that gave me a look I’ve worn proudly for the last 35 years.
I liked Lucy even better when her career started to falter. During the yippie-Vietnam protest years of the late ’60s, when I would run off to political riots the same way kids go to raves today, somehow I managed to tune in “The Lucy Show,” even though it was hardly revolutionary. “Here’s Lucy,” “Life With Lucy,” I saw them all and marveled at how a star with such a famous sense of humor could stubbornly refuse to reinvent herself on TV by changing her character in any way.
When Lucy tried movies, she seemed even more alarming, but I loved her just the same. Even “Mame” had a certain ghastly charm for her most dedicated groupies, but we gave up on convincing others. And “Stone Pillow,” the TV movie in which she played a homeless bag lady-well, it simply has to be seen to be believed. In fact, I feel like watching it again right now.
I wish Lucy had made a horror movie. I wish Lucy could have been in one of my films. I wish Lucy wasn’t dead.