Once upon a time there was a six year old Louisiana Cajun who landed a job playing the son of a Cuban bandleader, and ended up running a ballet company.
Along the way, he was the sage of Mayberry, the most visible member of a Christian rock band, almost joined the Von Trapp family, and after struggling with substance abuse and depression, became a dedicated witness to God. Lucille Ball called him Keith. Ron Howard called him Johnny Paul. TV producers called him Richard, and millions of little girls just wanted to call him. But for the past 60 years, succeeding generations in nearly every nation have called him "Little Ricky".
Keith Thibodeaux was born December 1, 1950 in Lafayette Louisiana where he displayed a proclivity for drumming while still in diapers. By age three he won a talent contest which landed him a job playing drums with the Horace Heidt orchestra for $500 per week. Three years later he joined the cast of "I Love Lucy", playing Ricky Ricardo, Jr., then stayed with the show until it wrapped in 1960. From 1962 to 1966 he played Opie's pal Johnny Paul Jason on "The Andy Griffith Show", then left Hollywood and started touring with David and the Giants, one of the country's first Christian rock groups. He met and married Kathy Denton, an accomplished ballerina, in 1976, and ten years later they founded Ballet Magnificat, an acclaimed dance company based in Jackson Mississippi which tours all over the world. I first met Keith in 1979 when he stopped by my morning television show in Richmond, Virginia. We reconnected recently, and spoke at length about his life and career.
JL: Is it fair to say that drums and music have been the common thread to everything in your life?
KT: Yeah, but another important thread was my faith in God. Even when I was younger I had a sense of God. I asked my Dad, "Why do you think God picked me to be Little Ricky?" because it was such a famous television show. And Dad said, "Well, God has a purpose for you, Keith."
JL: But how many kids auditioned for that role?
KT: I think there were about 200 until they got to me, and then they said, "We've found Little Ricky".
JL: But with all due respect, God had a purpose for those other kids too, so what gave you the edge?
KT: There were a couple of factors. I looked like Desi Arnaz and I looked like their child. And also I played the drums, which was a gift that the other kids maybe didn't possess.
JL: How did Lucy and Desi treat you on and off set?
KT: I was treated like part of their family. On set I conducted myself as part of the cast, but then off set I was a trusted member of their real family who could come over and play with their kids on weekends, so in that regard, I was pretty much treated like one of their own children.
JL: Does that close relationship perhaps explain why you never received screen credit, in other words, they wanted viewers to think that you WERE Little Ricky?
KT: Yeah, back in those days it was a big story when Lucy was pregnant with Desi Jr., and so they wrote that into the show. It was such a big deal that when they had the baby and Little Ricky was introduced on the show, and Desi Jr. was born at the same time, they just created a story within a story and that became the fabric of Little Ricky with ties to Desi Arnaz Jr.
JL: I know you played the drums on the show, but you also sang quite a bit. Was that your own voice or was it dubbed?
KT: Nope, that was all my voice. Even on Babaloo when I tried to hit a high note, it was me, for better or worse (laughs).
JL: All kids get upset when their parents fight, but I heard that the strife between Lucy and Desi got so bad that you started to stutter and forget your lines, so Lucy arranged for a counselor to visit with you.
KT: I would see the strife at their home and was sensitive to it, so I started to stutter as a result of that stress, and being in that environment with them. So they brought in a hypnotist to see if he could create some therapy for me. I remember he used the classic watch and chain hypnosis. It was old school and kind of odd.
JL: Did it work?
KT: Well I continued to do the show, so yeah, I guess it did (laughs).
JL: I also heard that you had a lot of female fans who had a crush on you.
KT: They did, and I actually did a tour across the eastern seaboard to promote the show and my own clothing line, called "Little Ricky's Chips and Twigs" (laughs). I was too young to sign my autograph, so I would give out photos with my thumb print on it for the little girls.
JL: You also had an impact on a lot of fans who were aspiring drummers.
KT: Oh yeah. One of them was the drummer from REO Speedwagon who credits me as one of his influences from when he watched me on "I Love Lucy"
JL: I know you kept in touch with Lucy and the kids over the years, but tell me about the last time you saw her.
KT: It was about 1985. My wife and her sister wanted to meet Lucy, so we drove up to her house and the maid came to the door and said there was nobody home. We were getting ready to pull out of the driveway and all of a sudden Lucy comes running out of the house, waving her hands, yelling "Keith!" All the tour buses stopped when they saw her, and fans ran up to my car and wanted to know who I was. I said, "I'm Little Ricky", and they went crazy. We went into the house and spent about an hour talking with Lucy. It also happened to be her birthday, so it was very special.
JL: What was it like playing Opie's pal on "The Andy Griffith Show"?
KT: It was a very easy going show to be a part of. It was fun hanging out with Ron on the set, he was one of the nicest kids in Hollywood.
JL: And he sort of looked up to you, didn't he?
KT: He did because I was about four years older, and he always asked the writers to write me a part so I could be on the show.
But Keith was on the show even when he WASN'T on the show, because Opie would frequently quote one of Johnny Paul's philosophies to his Dad.
Opie: Johnny Paul says tar is real good for your teeth. Andy: That's just an old wives tale. Opie: Johnny Paul ain't married.
But Johnny Paul DID get married eventually. After hitting a bad patch following his departure from Hollywood, Keith re-dedicated his life to the Lord and started touring with David and the Giants, then, in 1976 married Kathy Denton, an accomplished ballerina. Their two worlds of music and dance came together professionally in 1986 when they founded Ballet Magnificat, a Jackson, Mississippi -based company that tours throughout the United States and abroad. Today Keith serves as executive director for the company, and still tours with the band. But his days as Little Ricky and Johnny Paul are always with him.
JL: Do you still watch re-runs of "Lucy" and "Andy"?
KT: I occasionally watch Andy, and a little less occasionally I watch Lucy, but I still enjoy them. I appreciate them more now than I did when I was on them.
JL: Do any of the same girls from 60 years ago still write you fan letters?
KT: I still get a steady stream of fan mail and people who want photos, but you'd be surprised at how many little kids come up to me. Their Moms have shown them dvds, and tell them, "That's Little Ricky". And the kids look at this old man and go, "Really?" (laughs).
And with new fans getting born every day, I asked Keith what he meant when he once commented that HE had been born three times himself.
KT: Well I was born into the world when my mother had me. And then the Little Ricky character was born, and then I was born again in Jesus.
Having experienced multiple births, and taken on multiple personas, Keith Thibodeaux will always be part of the fabric of American pop culture. Episodes of "Lucy" and "Andy" are readily available on DVD and accessible via youtube. Meanwhile, CD's of David and the Giants, and his autobiography, "Life After Lucy" can still be purchased from Amazon. Not a bad legacy for a little drummer boy from the Bayou, and the most famous philosopher in the history of Mayberry.
It is what it is!
Little Ricky from I Love Lucy Interviewed