American-Jewish writer Lee Tannen tells Francine Wolfisz about I Loved Lucy, his new play detailing his close and enduring friendship with comedic sweetheart Lucille Ball
At first he admits to being “star-struck”, but as Lee Tannen came to develop a close friendship with America’s sweetheart, Lucille Ball, she became so much more to him.
“By the end of her life, she was everything to me,” he admits. “She was a mother figure, a confidant, a friend – just everything.”
The American-Jewish writer’s touching and personal memories of Lucille’s last decade – which were largely spent out of the spotlight and playing backgammon at home in Beverly Hills or Palm Springs – subsequently became a bestselling memoir, which has now been adapted for the stage.
The poignantly-titled I Loved Lucy opened this week at Jermyn Street Theatre, starring Sandra Dickinson as the beloved Hollywood star of the 1950s, best known for her trademark red hair and goofy persona, and Matthew Bunn as Lee.
Alongside her real-life husband Desi Arnaz, Lucille was propelled to stardom with the 1950s hit sitcom, I Love Lucy, which attracted phenomenal audience figures.
For example, when Eisenhower was inaugurated as president in January 1953, 29 million viewers tuned in – but the very next day, when Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky, 44m viewers were watching their television sets.
I Love Lucy proved equally popular over here when the series launched on ITV in 1955.
The showbiz comedy duo and power couple produced the show via the company they founded, Desilu Productions.
When their comedy show ended in 1957, Lucille took over the firm, making her the first woman to run a major television production studio.
Desilu went on to make a string of popular shows, including The Untouchables, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible.
During these dizzying heights of her career Lee first met Lucille, when he was a shy ten-year-old obsessed with I Love Lucy and she had recently married his relative, stand-up comedian Gary Morton, following her divorce from Arnaz in 1960.
Speaking from his home in New York, Lee recalls he was overcome when meeting his idol for the first time.
“Never in a million years did I think she would be in my family or that I would have a relationship with her. I was just enamoured with her and it meant so much to meet her, because she was such an idol to me.
“I just sat there for two hours with my jaw dropped open. I didn’t say a word. Every so often she would make little ‘quack quack’ noises in my ear or tickle me and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! It was unbelievable.”
Twenty years would pass before the pair would meet again, this time in 1980 when Lee was 30 and Lucille was 69.
“When I walked into the room it was like déjà vu, like I was 10-years-old again and I still didn’t know what to say to her,” he laughs. But this meeting would prove to be the starting point of a friendship that would endure throughout the last decade of Lucille’s life.
The pair found they had a connection and Lee went on to become Lucille’s confidant. He, too, began to rely on Lucille as an adopted mother figure.
“I was just coming out as a gay man and she was the first person I told,” he explains. “I knew she would be so accepting of that because of the business she was in. I didn’t have a great relationship with my own parents – it was strained at that point.
“Similarly, she had a relationship with her children [Lucie and Desi Arnaz Jr] but it wasn’t close.
“We had a mother-son relationship, without the mother-son baggage. She was also my best friend and I her confidant – she told me things she never told anybody else.”
Despite her non-Jewish roots (she was born into a Protestant family and studied Catholicism while married to Arnaz), Lucille behaved like a Jewish mother, “by her own admission”.
Lee adds: “She worried and fretted and had guilt like a Jewish mother. She was married to a Jew and she used to say that she was a Jewish mother!”
Away from her Hollywood persona, Lucille was a serious woman who “didn’t have time for small talk and took her career seriously”.
But there were the odd glimpses of klutzy behaviour, including one moment Lee recalls when she tried to mop up the water from an overflowing bath using a dustbuster and almost electrocuted herself – something Lee describes as “very Lucy Ricardo stuff”.
The pair’s friendship hit troubled times when a disagreement resulted in them not speaking to each other for more than a year. During this time, Lucy attempted to resurrect her past success with a sitcom, Life With Lucy, but it was cancelled by ABC less than two months into its run. When Lee came back into Lucille’s life, he found a dejected talent whose star was on the wane.
“When the show failed, she really went downhill,” he recalls. “This is what I call the third act in life. What it’s like to be so famous, so rich, so successful – and yet so unhappy at the end.
“I tried to do whatever I could to buoy her up and I did feel sad for her. When the show failed, she thought nobody loved I Love Lucy anymore. The truth of the matter is they just didn’t love the show. Everybody loved Lucy. But she couldn’t quite separate the alter ego, Lucy Ricardo from Lucille Ball. It was a bittersweet ending.”
In 1989, Lucille died aged 77, having been married to Gary Morton for nearly 30 years.
Following her death, the accolades kept coming – including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. There are also plans for a forthcoming biopic, written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Cate Blanchett.
And of course, there is the UK premiere of Lee’s fascinating play, I Loved Lucy, where audiences can expect to find “a very different portrayal of Lucy, one that is not Lucy Ricardo” – and one that no doubt gets to the very heart of why so many people did – and still do – find Lucille Ball just so captivating.
• I Loved Lucy runs until 27 February at Jermyn Street Theatre, London. Details: www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk