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Friday, February 4, 2011

Keith Thibodeaux: The Actor Who Played Little Ricky


There seems to be some confusion about who portrayed Little Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy.  Many people are under the mistaken belief that Lucille Ball’s real-life son, Desi Arnaz, Jr. played the role.  The part was actually played by Keith Thibodeaux (his stage name was Richard Keith).  It’s not really surprising that Keith’s name is not well known.  He was not even billed on I Love Lucy, and on the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, he was credited as “Little Ricky” rather than Richard Keith.
Keith Raymond Thibodeaux was born on December 1, 1950 in Lafayette, Louisiana.  He is of Cajun French background. His last name was considered too difficult for American television viewers to pronounce and he was given the stage name of Richard Keith.
 Thibodeaux was a child prodigy and learned to play the drums at a very early age.  He started with banging spoons and was touring as a professional drummer when he was just 3 years of age.  He played in a national Big Band tour and was discovered by The Horace Heidt Show, a 1950s version of American Idol.  He was billed as “the world’s tiniest drummer” and toured with the Horace Heidt Orchestra.
As the sixth season of I Love Lucy approached, it was evident that a child actor would be needed to portray Little Ricky.  The babies used in the previous seasons would no longer do.  Little Ricky was older now and the search for someone to portray him was on.   In May of 1956, auditions for the coveted role of Little Ricky took place and nobody qualified. 
It happened that Keith Thibodeaux was in Hollywood to perform in a band.  Keith’s father, a fan of I Love Lucy, had heard about Desilu’s search for a boy to play Little Ricky.  He decided to bring his five-year old son to the casting department.  Keith was hired because of his talent for playing the drums and his resemblance to Desi Arnaz.  His initial salary was about $461 dollars a week. 
After Keith completed his appearances on I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour in 1960, he made appearances on other television shows and continued with his drumming and performing arts.  In 1961, he appeared in episodes of Ben Casey (“An Expensive Glass of Water”) and Route 66 (“Trap at Cordova”).  Most notably, Keith played Opie Taylor’s friend Johnny Paul Jason in 12 episodes of The Andy Griffith Show spanning from 1962 until 1966.
When Thibodeaux was 15, his parents divorced and he returned to Louisiana with his mother. During high school and a brief time in college, he worked as a drummer in a rock band.  By the age of 24, he had developed a serious drug problem and his life was so unhappy that he entertained suicidal thoughts.
Fortunately, Keith was able to turn things around.  He won his battle with drugs and became a devout Christian.  He married a ballet dancer named Kathy Denton in 1976 and the couple moved to Southern California.  In 1979, they returned to the Southern U.S. and settled in Jackson, Mississippi where their daughter Tara was born.  He spent a decade touring with the Christian band, David and the Giants.
Now 60 years old, Thibodeaux still entertains with dance groups and drums.  He also manages his wife’s ballet company, Ballet Magnificat.  Of his childhood years with Lucille Ball, he recalled in a 2008 article by Audrey T. Hingley entitled “From Lucy to the Lord" that "Lucy was very demanding as far as what she expected from people, but she was also a mother figure to me on the set.  I didn’t see myself as a celebrity.  I was there to do a job.”
- Joanne

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