‘I Love Lucy’: The Character of Little Ricky Caused an ‘Identity Problem’ for Desi Arnaz Jr.

When I Love Lucy featured the arrival of a baby boy to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, ratings skyrocketed. While the show’s stars Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz portrayed the doting parents onscreen to the new character of Little Ricky, they had their own two kids at home – Lucie and Desi Jr.

With art often imitating life, Ball actually delivered Desi Jr. on the same day their landmark episode of Little Ricky’s arrival aired. Ball and Arnaz’s son revealed he often felt in the shadow of the couple’s TV child. 

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz with their children Desi Jr. and Lucie
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz with their children Desi Jr. and Lucie | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Little Ricky’s arrival makes for big ratings on ‘I Love Lucy’

According to Ranker, the 1950s sitcom was close to cancellation when Ball discovered she was pregnant. Due to I Love Lucy’s strong popularity, the network decided to write her baby news into the storyline.

The pregnancy plot became such a hit, they featured several episodes on the Ricardos’ upcoming arrival. I Love Lucy achieved ratings gold with “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” on January 19, 1953. Forty-four million viewers tuned in to see the couple welcome Little Ricky, outranking President Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration the following day, according to Vulture,

Ball was actually seven months pregnant with Desi Jr. when she filmed the iconic episode. Turns out he was born on the same day “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” aired.

Keith Thibodeaux lands the role of Little Ricky

Actor Keith Thibodeaux auditioned for the role of Little Ricky in 1955. He recalled meeting the infamous redhead and her bandleader husband.

“I walked on the set and there was Lucy,” Thibodeaux told ABC News of Ball. “She said ‘OK he’s cute, but what does he do?’ My dad said, ‘Well he plays the drums.’ … Eventually Desi Arnaz himself came over and started jamming with me on the drums … Then he kind of stood up and said ‘Well, I think we found Little Ricky.'”

In the book Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz by authors Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert, Arnaz described a friendship that developed between Thibodeaux and Desi Jr.

“Richard was almost 2 years older than Desi Jr. but didn’t look it,” the I Love Lucy star said. “One of the reasons Desi Jr. got interested in music and playing the drums was that he wanted to do everything Little Ricky did in the show. … They grew up together.”

Desi Arnaz, Jr. felt overshadowed by Little Ricky character

Thibodeaux revealed he became one of the few pals that Desi Jr. had growing up, and sometimes felt pressured into their friendship.

“My dad worked at Desilu [Studios], so Lucy was his boss,” Thibodeaux said in Sanders’ and Gilbert’s book. “She would call and say, ‘I want Keith to come over and play with Desi Jr. this weekend.’ Sometimes I’d cry, but my dad worked for Lucy, so that was that. Even so, there was a time when I was basically Desi Jr.’s only genuine friend. Or at least one of the very few.”

Desi Jr. struggled with seeing his parents on television referring to someone else as their “son.” He admitted it caused him some emotional turmoil during his childhood.

“I can still remember watching the show when I was about three and wondering who was the baby with Mommy and Daddy,” Desi Jr. told Sanders and Gilbert. “When my parents said it was me, I was confused, because I knew it wasn’t.”

Keith Thibodeaux and Desi Arnaz, Jr.
Keith Thibodeaux and Desi Arnaz, Jr. | CBS via Getty Images

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Desi Jr. felt compelled to outshine Thibodeaux to the best of his abilities. He developed a growing resentment for the I Love Lucy character.

“I had this identity problem, and it wasn’t helped by people calling me Little Ricky, a name I learned to despise. I remember wanting rather desperately to be better at something – anything – than the boy who played Little Ricky. For a while, it seemed as if everything in my life was connected to Little Ricky’s.”

After I Love Lucy ended its six-season run in 1957, Thibodeaux continued playing the role of Little Ricky in The Desi-Lucy Comedy Hour for three seasons.