June 19, 1978 12:00 PM

Years ago I was a playboy,” sighs Desi Arnaz Jr., a ripe old 25. “From the time I was 13, I thought I was in love. But I didn’t know what love was. Now my attitude is: If it feels good, hang in there. I guess I’m a playman.”

Coming from any other Hollywood brat, the sentiment would be insufferably precocious. But who has ever gotten an earlier start in showbiz than the son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Sr.? Desi Jr.’s prime-time birth on I Love Lucy was watched by what was then the biggest TV audience in history. Desi’s subsequent restless romancing was widely covered and publicly clucked over. At 17 he carried on tempestuously with Patty Duke, 23. Next came Liza Minnelli, 26 to his 19. Then there were Kim (True Grit) Darby and Tina Sinatra, not to mention such near-misses as skater Dorothy Hamill.

“Desi was in love three times a week in those days,” recalls his pal Dino Martin, 26, Dean’s son. They, along with Billy Hinsche, made up the “Dino, Desi and Billy” pop-rock trio in the mid-’60s. Of the three, Hinsche was the best musician, and he later sang with the Beach Boys. Martin was considered the “wild man,” recalls Desi’s sister, Lucie Arnaz. “In those days Mother used to say, ‘I don’t want you to hang out with that Dino Martin.’ Now she says, ‘Why can’t you be more like Dino?’ ” Back then Desi Jr. “was the lover of the group,” Dino says. “There was no shortage of groupies. Of course, they were 10 to 12 years old.”

Desi’s acting career might have remained as casual as his love life, once he finished playing himself on Here’s Lucy from age 15 to 17. (Previously “Little Ricky” was played by actor Richard Keith.) But today, after years of TV guest shots and an occasional good-but-unnoticed movie like 1971’s Red Sky at Morning, Desi is unexpectedly coming into his own as a strong and hardworking actor. This spring he starred in two made-for-NBC films, To Kill a Cop and The Courage and the Passion (for which he sacrificed his luxuriant black hair to portray an Air Force sergeant). What is potentially Desi’s biggest credit is ahead: director Robert Altman’s A Wedding, due in October. Desi plays the bridegroom opposite stars like Geraldine Chaplin and Carol Burnett.

Simultaneously, Desi’s rampant libido has gone into an uncharacteristic remission. “It’s been two years since I’ve had a regular girl,” he says wonderingly. Sure, there are friends like Melissa March, Mel Tormé’s daughter, but his roommate is Dino, who in calling Desi “one of the best celebrity players around” means tennis instead of the other love games. (Dino, a premed student turned pro, is a member of the World Team Tennis Phoenix Racquets.)

Desi reckons that his “actor’s sense of timing” traces back to Jan. 19, 1953, the historic airdate Lucy Ricardo’s baby was born on pretaped TV—and the same day the real Desi was born in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. “The doctors did cesareans on Mondays, and I happened to be right on time,” he remembers. He grew up chubby, taunted by big sister Lucie (she called him “Blubberbags”) and disciplined by his strict mother. (“She was tough. She used to say when we fought, ‘The first who gets hurt, gets hit.’ “)

With the help of friends like Frank Sinatra, Desi’s trio organized in 1965 and went on to four LPs, 40 singles and hits like I’m a Fool. “They didn’t let Desi sing very much,” Luci jokes, though Hinsche tactfully adds, “He’s gotten a lot better.” Shortly after, Desi shed his baby fat (“It was like a body transplant,” Dino marvels) and inherited his Cuban father’s dark good looks.

After graduating from Beverly Hills H.S. and skipping college, Desi was linked with Patty Duke, whom he now calls a “friend” but refuses to discuss. “Patty loved Desi, but she was very unstable at the time,” explains Lucie, 26. “She chased Desi all over the country. He broke it off.” Desi had already met Minnelli at 3 (“She opened my bedroom door and said, ‘Hi, I’m Liza’ “). After Cabaret he ran into her again in Vegas “and, well, the rest is history.” They lived together 18 months, “but we were always traveling,” he says. “That was tough on the relationship.” She left him for Peter Sellers. Last fall, before Liza’s split with husband Jack Haley Jr., she and Desi saw each other in New York. He reasons, “We know each other better now because we know ourselves better.” As for Dorothy Hamill, his only date with her backfired when he introduced her to Dino, who has been her doubles partner ever since. “I wasn’t jealous then,” Desi groans. “Now I am.”

Though his parents were divorced in 1960, Desi remains close to both. Lucille, 66, is the wife of producer Gary Morton, and Desi Sr., 61, lives with his second wife, Edie, in Del Mar, where, says daughter Lucie, “he is still working on his drinking problem.” “I’m grateful to them for who they are,” Desi affirms. “They have helped me in every way.” (But when Lucille once wanted to put Desi’s rock group on Here’s Lucy, “she wouldn’t pay enough,” Dino snitches. “She was a tough businesswoman.”) Martin adds, “People think kids of stars have it easy. It’s not true. There are pressures. A lot of kids around here didn’t make it through the drug era in one piece.”

These days Desi practices yoga in his house above Beverly Hills and surfs and skateboards to keep his 5’11” frame near 165 pounds. He craves food—”anything, just put it down me”—and is developing into what Dino considers a “great cook.” Speaking for both of them, Dino concludes, “We were wild men at 17, 18, 19. We’ve been through fast cars and older women. Now we are old fogies.” He pauses, then adds, “But, wait, there are a few good years left.”

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