In October 1951 CBS introduced a half-hour comedy called I Love Lucy, and within a year it had the highest rating of any show before or since. The former Goldwyn Girl and B-movie queen in the title role had become an American institution, and at 68, Lucille Ball remains one. Her stormy 20-year marriage to co-star Desi Arnaz ended in divorce in 1960, and a year later she married comedian Gary Morton while taking charge of huge Desilu Productions. In 1967 Lucy sold Desilu to Gulf & Western for $17 million, rode out a movie bomb Mame, and endured the rocky maturing of her daughter, Lucie, and son, Desi Jr. The last incarnation of her series ended in 1974, but the original is still in reruns after two decades and ranks as the most-watched sitcom in TV history. Lucy required a staff of 20 to handle her residuals and business affairs even before 1979, when she succumbed to the personal wooing of NBC President Fred Silverman (at a six-hour dinner) and defected from CBS. This Friday she is scheduled to bow on her new network in a special, Lucy Moves to NBC. She will also serve as a consultant to the network on new comedy properties. Lucy talked with PEOPLE’s Peter Lester about comedy, stars and subjects on which she has always been outspoken, like modern morality and her own family.
Do you feel disloyal leaving CBS after 28 years?
Not really. CBS didn’t want my expertise to develop new half-hour comedy material and NBC did. How to do half-hour comedy innovatively is something I do pride myself on. We invented it with I Love Lucy.
Would you like to star in another series?
I wouldn’t think of it—not since my Vivian’s gone. [Co-star Vivian Vance died last year.] We enjoyed it so much we didn’t want to go home at night.
What do you like now on TV?
I watch PBS, talk shows, game shows and documentaries. But I don’t sit around watching during the daytime.
What about sitcoms?
Rarely. I’ve seen Mork & Mindy a couple times. Robin Williams amazes me. And I love Gary Coleman. He puts me away. He puts everybody away.
Do you catch many movies?
I just saw three this week in my screening room, but that’s the most I’ve seen in two years. Kramer vs. Kramer, Starting Over and Breaking Out, uh, Breaking Away. If I had the time I’d go see Alan Alda three times a day in anything. God, he’s talented.
When did you realize that comedy was your forte?
In television in the ’50s. I sure as hell didn’t know what I was doing when I started. I had too wide a variety of parts to know who or what I was. TV started for me just as a means of keeping my husband Desi off the road. He’d been on tour with his band since he got out of the Army, and we were in our 11th year of marriage and wanted to have children.
But didn’t comedy help you even when you were a Goldwyn Girl?
I guess after about six months out here in the ’30s I realized there was a place for me. Eddie Cantor and Sam Goldwyn found that a lot of the really beautiful girls didn’t want to do some of the things I did—put on mud packs and scream and run around and fall into pools. I said I’d love to do the scene with the crocodile. He didn’t have teeth, but he could sure gum you to death. I didn’t mind getting messed up. That’s how I got into physical comedy.
Who are your favorite current comediennes?
Carol Burnett—she heads my list, absolutely. That girl can do anything. Nancy Walker too. Goldie Hawn, I love her. Dean Martin and Ann Sothern make me laugh more in person than in pictures. Bette Midler’s style is so much broader than mine, but I enjoy her. She shocks me. Knowing how honest and adorable and vulnerable she is, I’m shocked that she goes overboard that much in concert.
How about Lily Tomlin?
I don’t care for her type of whatever-she’s-doing. I find myself studying Lily rather than enjoying her.
Are you sympathetic with the women’s movement?
They can use my name for equal rights, but I don’t get out there and raise hell because I’ve been so liberated I have nothing to squawk about.
What about contemporary morality?
How about contemporary immorality? We’re all hooked on the results of the permissiveness of the ’60s. We’ve got a few more years to go, but our kids are doing a swingaround. They’re going almost Victorian.
Did you ever have a problem with drugs or drinking?
My idea of getting high was a Coca-Cola and an aspirin. The first time I was around marijuana I wondered why someone was passing me this cigarette he had just smoked. I’ve never tried it. After a few drinks I’m either asleep or sick. I’m allergic to morphine, Percodan, codeine—I can’t take any of those things because they work in reverse. The eyes won’t close.
How do you feel about gay rights?
It’s perfectly all right with me. Some of the most gifted people I’ve ever met or read about are homosexual. How can you knock it?
Have you read any of the biographies that have been written about you?
They’re all unauthorized. I read the first two pages of one, and it was so shocking. About me leaving Jamestown, N.Y. at 14 and becoming a hooker. They didn’t say hooker, but they intimated it. I thought, “Christ, I gotta see where they get this.” They never substantiated anything they said.
Will you write your own book?
I don’t think you should write a book until you tell the absolute truth. You can’t do that until you’re 85, and I don’t want to live that long. I’ve always prided myself on knowing when to get off and I hope it works out that way.
What achievement are you proudest of?
When you have the first baby at 39, that’s got to be the biggest. Any woman would say the birth of her children was her greatest achievement, unless she was Madame Curie.
What was your darkest moment?
When I got a divorce, and disappointed millions of people by doing so.
When you married Desi, didn’t his playboy reputation bother you?
No, it intrigued me. I was amazed at myself saying yes after knowing him only six months. Everybody gave it about a year and a half. I gave it six weeks. I thought it was the most daring thing I’d ever done, and it certainly was.
Do you get along with Desi Sr. now?
Always have, we didn’t even get two lawyers for the divorce.
Do you see him socially?
Sure. He’s married to a very nice girl. He’s been remarried 17 years.
Why has your marriage to Gary Morton lasted?
Because Gary takes things in moderation. He doesn’t think the grass is greener elsewhere, he’s not a workaholic or a playaholic and he appreciates his home. Desi was a very generous man who built many houses but never lived in any home. On a scale of 1 to 10, I rate my marriage to Gary a 12.
Desi Jr. also has a reputation as a ladies’ man. Does that concern you?
Well, of course, he had to emulate Dad there for a while. I just hope he doesn’t continue, because that’s what I had to put up with. That’s not nice. It’s very demeaning. Anyway, I’m sure his new wife, Linda Purl, wouldn’t put up with it for as long as I did.
What is Linda like?
A porcelain doll, as sweet inside, apparently, as she is outside—and organized. If there’s anyone in the world who isn’t organized, it’s my son. I hope she rubs off on him, and he doesn’t rub off on her.
How is your daughter Lucie doing?
Thank God she got to do one of Neil Simon’s plays [They’re Playing Our Song] and now she’s working with great talents like Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier in her new movie, The Jazz Singer. But socially, I couldn’t get Lucie to go out with anyone from the time she was 15 to 19. Then she married a very nice boy whom we were very grateful to for a couple of years for being a great babysitter. Then she got a divorce and started dating for the first time in her life. A late bloomer.
Do you worry about the kids?
Not stay-up-all-night worry. I’m very proud and I thank God out loud for their health and the fact that they like to work and mix with people. They’re making things happen for themselves—and that’s half the battle.