PREPARING TO PLAY HIS FATHER IN THE film The Mambo Kings, Desi Arnaz Jr. flew first to the family’s longtime vacation home in Las Cruces, Mexico. “The house has these huge cement walls,” he says. “The memory of Dad’s voice is more prominent there than anywhere else, because of the echo. It’s still there, so when I tried to duplicate the voice, I knew it sounded right.”
Arnaz, now 39, is awakening those echoes of his father, giving a resonant performance in Mambo Kings as both Desi Sr. and as I Love Lucy’s Ricky Ricardo. Desi Jr. had resisted playing Desi Sr. for nearly two years. He liked The Mambo Kings, but when he was approached, he points out, “My mother had recently passed away. It just wasn’t the right time.” It made things no easier for him that his beloved father had died three years earlier. Mambo director Arne Glimcher auditioned more than 100 actors for the part. Many could impersonate Ricky, Glimcher explains, “but nobody knew who the real Desi was.”
Nobody, that is, but Desi Jr., who finally came to see the part as a parable of his father’s Cuban immigrant experience. He had spent a lifetime first living up to his Cuban-born father’s exuberant excesses then working equally hard to live them down. Like his father, he was a devoted ladies’ man; some of his more celebrated flames included Patty Duke and Liza Minnelli. And where his father turned to drink, Desi Jr. turned to drugs.
To be sure, Arnaz has now straightened himself out. He has been married, happily, to the former Amy Bargiel, a dance instructor, since 1987. (His yearlong marriage to actress Linda Purl had ended in divorce in 1980.) He lives with Amy and her teenage daughter, Haley, in a pleasant, three-bedroom ranch house in Boulder City, Nev., near the international headquarters of the New Life Foundation, a loosely knit organization devoted to self-help through positive thinking.
It was at a foundation meeting back in 1978 that Desi Jr. and Amy met. Both had embraced the teachings of the foundation’s guru, Vernon Howard, a former children’s book author. In his foreword to a book about the foundation, Arnaz defines its philosophy: “You need not be dependent upon anyone or anything for happiness…all psychological stress—anger, depression, anxiety—is born out of a lack of understanding.” Arnaz credits his recovery with “enhancing my relationship with my father. He was my best friend.” When Desi Jr. was 3, his father bought him his first set of drums. By age 13, he had formed a rock trio, Dino, Desi and Billy, with pals Dino Martin Jr. (Dean’s son, killed in a 1987 plane crash) and Billy Hinsche (who later performed with the Beach Boys).
Amid these moments came his parents’ lavishly publicized divorce, when Desi Jr. was 7. “They knew it affected Lucie and me,” he reflects, “and the choice you make is, you stay together for the children or you change. They weren’t able to change.”
Nor could they stay together, thanks largely to Desi Sr.’s wayward ways. Still, both Desi Jr. and Lucie adored their father. “He was the emotional one,” says Lucie, who now lives in New York’s Westchester County with her husband, actor Lawrence Luckinbill, and their three children. “He was the one we wanted to emulate.” But, she adds, “neither of them was very happy. My mother”—who shared custody of the children—” was very, very strict and very closed around us.”
Even after Lucy married comic Gary Morton in 1961 and Desi Sr. married Edie Hirsch in 1963 (who died in 1985), the children clung to the naive hope that their parents would reunite. As Desi Jr. recalls, “We used to show Mom The Parent Trap [in which Hayley Mills plays twins whose parents reconcile], and Gary would go, ‘Enough with The Parent Trap.’ ”
No such reconciliation occurred, of course. When he was just 16 (and with his mother’s approval), Desi Jr. moved into his own house in Beverly Hills. While kids his age were playing basketball and dating cheerleaders, Desi Jr. was performing on Mom’s Here’s Lucy (1968-71) and running around with older women, including Duke and Liza. He also plunged into the drug scene, including cocaine and hallucinogens. “I was raised in the ’60s,” he says, “when we thought that drugs were not only the answer to a lot of our seeking, but also better than alcohol. But, in effect,” he muses, “we do learn the way we try to solve problems. My father and I had a lot in common.”
Unsuccessfully, Arnaz tried various drug-rehab programs. Then, in 1978, he read Vernon Howard’s book The Mystic Path to Cosmic Power. He visited Howard at his Boulder City headquarters and immediately joined the foundation. He eventually became its national spokesman, working full-lime on a volunteer basis (Arnaz’s investments have made him independently wealthy).
Still, it wasn’t until 1982 that Arnaz entered the family-participation program at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif. Desi Sr. initially objected. As Lucie remembers, “My father said, “We don’t air our dirty laundry.’ ” But mother Lucy pitched in, along with Gary and Lucie. “She went through the whole thing with me,” Desi Jr. says of his mother. “It was very courageous of her to put herself there with five other families and everyone knowing who she was. The first day, one of the other families arrived—all wearing I Love Lucy buttons.”
When he had successfully completed the program, Arnaz inspired his father to deal with his drinking problem. The process took four years and ended in a bitter irony. Soon after Desi Sr. came out of Scripps clean and sober in 1986, he discovered he had lung cancer and died six months later.
Meanwhile, Desi Jr. had moved to Boulder City and—in 1987—married Amy. “When I first met Desi,” she says, “he was a wild man. His level of anger has gone way, way down now, and his level of patience has grown tremendously.” Arnaz dotes on his adopted daughter, Haley. “For me to go to football games now and see Haley as a cheerleader, I’m like a kid for the first time,” he says.
Inevitably, Desi Jr.’s reflections turn to his father. “He had this great love of life,” he says. “When I was 16, he wrote me a letter, as his father had once written to him, about how the path through life is like the road between La Paz, Mexico, and Las Cruces. It’s a dirt road that goes over this huge mountain range. In some places it’s beautiful, and in others it’s very rocky.”
DORIS BACON in Boulder City