“The worst thing you can do is suppress pain,” observed Lucie, “and she made a career out of suppressing all her pain.” Lately the miseries of childhood had been supplanted by the very public divorce and the assumption of responsibility Lucy had never wanted. To be famous, yes, she had always desired that, and to be respected. But to be responsible? That was something else, something unplanned and intimidating. But if that was the hand she had been dealt, so be it. She would intimidate back. Small wonder that director John Frankenheimer seriously considered Lucy for the part of Laurence Harvey’s lethal, oedipal mother in the thriller The Manchurian Candidate, before awarding it to Angela Lansbury.
On the set, a different person began to show up. Through the I Love Lucy years, the star had been difficult and querulous, particularly at first readings, seeking the right tempo and takes. But the persona she displayed at the filming of The Lucy Show was quite unlike what had gone before.
Vivian Vance, whom Lucy regarded as a reliable script doctor as well as a friend, was not immune to harsh critiques from the boss. For “Lucy and Viv Play Softball,” the two actresses were to choose up sides with a bat. Lucy kept throwing the bat in a way that made it impossible for her partner to catch it cleanly. “I could catch it right if you threw it right,” was the very reasonable complaint. Lucy walked off the set and Vivian started to cry. When Lucy returned she simply said, “Now, where were we?” refusing to recognize that anything untoward had taken place.
Others came under fire and were not let off so easily. Lucy made a point of challenging authority figures who were working for her. Candy Moore thought it was “unprofessional for her to yell at people in front of others—particularly the director Jack Donohue. It undermined his authority.” But that was Lucy’s aim. After the first day on any episode, everyone knew who was in charge.
The only actor immune from Lucy’s barbs was Gale Gordon, her old companion from radio days, when he had played innumerable haughty, pompous bosses. Gordon was written into The Lucy Show during its second season, in order to supply Lucy with the foil she lacked in the first thirty-three episodes. For the next five seasons he played Theodore J. Mooney, manager of the local bank and trustee of Lucy’s money. In a better part, or with different direction, Gordon might have given the show some depth and satiric bite. The skilled farceur had learned his trade from the cradle onward, watching his father, an American vaudeville quick-change artist, and his mother, a British actress. Born with a cleft palate, Gordon had worked on his diction until it was perfect for radio, and on his appearance until it was ideal for television. Lucy’s affection and regard for him were absolute, so much so that she failed to see the shortcomings of the Mooney character—or of the character actor who portrayed him.
In the first place, Gordon was never encouraged to vary his interpretation. “When you are at full tilt right from the beginning,” noted Maury Thompson, “you have nowhere to build to—nowhere to go.” When Gordon consulted Thompson about his acting, the camera coordinator leveled with him. “He said, ‘You know, other people have told me that. But I can’t seem to help myself. I’ll try to temper it.’ But he couldn’t.” In the second place, through no fault of his own Gordon was incapable of filling the vacuum left when Desi departed. “A husband is a funny authority figure,” Bob Schiller pointed out. “A banker, although certainly an authority figure, doesn’t have any of the warmth, humor, or sex of a husband.”