Ben Mankiewicz Interviews Lucille Ball—A What If

Ben Mankiewicz

Hosted by Ben Mankiewicz, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) releases The Plot Thickens, Season 3: Lucy, the third installment of its award-winning podcast on October 12. The podcast features hours upon hours of never-before-heard interviews with Lucy and husband Desi Arnaz, plus their family, friends and former colleagues discussing the highs and lows in the life and career of the famous Hollywood icon. The Lucy podcast is extremely well researched, including lots of interview tape of Lucy herself.

But rumor has it TCM host Ben Mankiewicz has conducted a few interviews in his career. What would he want to ask Lucille Ball and probe if he could? What interview questions would he ask Lucy and why? Well, Classic Couple asked Ben just that. Here’s what he said.

Ben’s Question for Lucy: What was it like to come under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee?

Why Ask? I would have spent hours talking about the Hollywood blacklist. No question. What that pressure felt like that you could have lost everything. They would have lost the show, and Desi would have gone back to being a bandleader. Lucy would have been done for a while, and by the time she would have been able to come back, she would have been 50. And their marriage, I’m sure, would not have lasted as long as it did.

But Lucy survived and it can’t be a coincidence. Because—unlike the other writers, producers, actors, and directors who were blacklisted—Lucy was, I think, money. Right? So in general, executives were working to come up with an explanation that clears her rather than saying: ‘She’s done; pick somebody else.’ There is nobody else. Nobody else is going to come into I Love Lucy and make that show. CBS obviously didn’t want to lose the show. So, Lucy had to make some tough, unfortunate choices, and I would ask her about that.

Ben’s Question for Lucy: What in the world made you think that you could insist on your Cuban-born husband to be a costar in a network television show in 1951?

Why Ask? At 39-years-old Lucy’s done a successful radio show and she started to have some success in movies.  She signs with Columbia for a three-picture deal and the movies are her movies. They’re tailored to her. She could have done that for a while and maybe work through her forties, make a lot of money and come close to being an A list star. But she doesn’t. She goes to television and starts over — which is really kissing her movie career goodbye — and just takes this huge risk.

And then included in that is you’re going to make them hire your husband. But she wanted to keep her family together. But mostly that was this bold moment in America where we got to see a Cuban immigrant married to a white woman. Okay, we didn’t see them being romantic, but later they had a kid so we know what that means, right? They slept together. They’re not just married; they’re having sex. That was big deal and would have been a big deal for decades. So, I would focus on that—the risks that she takes at that moment.

Ben’s Question for Lucy: Why did you stay with Desi?

Why Ask? I know that answer, and I don’t begrudge her. She always wanted to keep her family together. I love that answer.

Clearly what Lucy craved was home. That’s why she fought so hard to keep Desi in line as best she could to keep their family unit together. Even when it seemed pretty clear that Desi was not a guy you could be married to. I don’t want to excuse Desi’s behavior. He came from a culture where the expectations of American domesticity were foreign to him so that was a challenge. You don’t get to run around your wife like that. But nonetheless, she was drawn to him.

She was tough. They fought. They liked arguing. And then they liked making up. And then there is the fact that they stayed together and stayed close. I’d be asking her about that.

Ben’s Question for Lucy: What did Desi mean to you the 1970s?

Why Ask? Her last show got cancelled—really the only unsuccessful show she ever had. And it’s hard to experience failure when you’ve had so much success. Not long after the cancellation of the show Desi dies, and she was devastated by his death, and they hadn’t been together in a long time. He mattered to her always. That’s what I would like to go after.

Ben’s Question for Lucy: Give me a sense—what was it like to be a contract player in the 1930s and 40s?

Why Ask? Obviously, I’d have a zillion questions about what it was like to be a contract player at RKO in the 1930s. And then basically one at Columbia in the 1940s and what MGM was like. What was it like? How brutal was it? Give me the glamour and give me how hard it was—the brutality of it and especially what you had to go through as a woman to be taken seriously. And to get anybody to really recognize that she’s funny. It took until the Columbia movies for anyone to say, ‘Hey, you know, she’s funny idiots. Give her something that’s funny and let her be funny.’ I would ask her about all that stuff.

Classic Couple Comment: We wish you could have asked her about all that stuff, Ben. We’re looking forward to listening to the podcast.

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