Like many former child stars, Keith Thibodeaux, who played Little Ricky Ricardo on TV’s beloved I Love Lucy in the 1950s, hit a rough spot after leaving the show-biz spotlight. Drugs and depression threatened to take over his life.
“I had to have a miracle, and that’s what God gave me: a miracle,” says Thibodeaux, now 57.
Born in Lafayette, La., the drum-playing prodigy went from tapping on trashcans to playing on a national Big Band tour by age 4, billed as “the world’s tiniest drummer” after being discovered by The Horace Heidt Show, a 1950s forerunner of today’s TV talent-search competitions. After the tour ended, he won the coveted role of Little Ricky, the toddler child of characters portrayed by Lucille Ball and her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz.
“Lucy was very demanding as far as what she expected from people, but she was also a mother figure to me on the set,” Thibodeaux recalls. “I didn’t see myself as a celebrity. I was there to do a job.”
Pushed into show business by his Hollywood-fascinated father, the shy Cajun found himself in a world of fantasy and pressure on the set. “It was a very unusual relationship,” he says of the dynamic between him and his on-screen parents. “I was a kid but I was also an employee. Pleasing Lucy and Desi was very important.”
After his part in Lucy ended in 1960, Thibodeaux found work in numerous other TV roles, including four years as Johnny Paul Jason, Opie Taylor’s best friend, on The Andy Griffith Show. At age 15, his parents’ divorce sent him and his siblings back home to Louisiana to live with their mother. During high school and a brief stint in college, he worked as a drummer in a rock band. By age 24, experimentation with marijuana had evolved into a full-blown drug problem, and Thibodeaux’s life was such a mess that he even thought about suicide. A visit to a rural Louisiana church turned him around “eventually.
“All my problems didn’t disappear overnight,” he says. “But my encounter with the Lord gave me hope. I started to read the Bible and a whole new life opened up for me.”
His Christian conversion enabled Thibodeaux to win his battle with drugs. He met and married ballet dancer Kathy Denton, and they settled in Jackson, Miss., where their daughter, Tara, now 28, was born. He spent a decade recording and touring extensively with the Christian band David & The Giants. In 1991, he joined Ballet Magnificat!, a Christian ballet company founded by his wife, eventually becoming executive director. The ballet has two touring companies that perform 100 dates each year, a 400-student performing arts school in Jackson and 50 employees.
“Our purpose is to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the medium of dance,” says Thibodeaux, who co-authored a memoir, Life After Lucy, and continues to make Lucy-related appearances at events around the country.
“Fans are thrilled to meet not only an actual cast member,” says Ric Wyman, the director of The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in Jamestown, N.Y., “but someone who knew the ‘first couple of comedy’ personally.”
Thibodeaux’s wife continually meets “a whole new generation of Lucy lovers” in their travels with the ballet company. She recalls one restaurant stop where a woman started shaking when she learned that Thibodeaux had played Little Ricky on her favorite sitcom.
“I’m thankful God gave him the opportunity to be on two of the greatest shows of all time,” Kathy says. “He can use that as an open door to talk to people about the Lord.”
“I never wanted to be a child star. That was in my favor. I just wanted to play music,” Thibodeaux says. “The best thing that ever happened to me was becoming a believer in Jesus. If I said any other thing was the reason I didn’t turn out (badly), I’d be lying.
“The gift of laughter is the legacy of Lucy and Desi, and I am grateful to have played a small part in that.”