Wednesday, November 16, 2005

'Little Ricky', the drum-playing child star of the great I Love Lucy show was in town a few weeks ago. I was introduced to him by a mutual friend and we spent some informal time together over a 2-day period.
His real name is Keith Thibodeaux (tib-uh-doe) and he is the last surviving cast member of that TV landmark. He also appeared on The Andy Griffith Show as Opie's best friend, 'Johnny Paul Jason', and he says today that Ron Howard was "one of the nicest people I ever met in Hollywood."
Of course, I Love Lucy made legends out of Lucy, Desi, William Frawley and Vivian Vance, and Keith has only good memories of working with them on the set. It was always on a first name basis: he was told, "Call us Lucy and Desi." Bill Frawley was a really nice guy, not an ogre as some have pictured him. His usual greeting to 'Little Ricky' was, "How're you doing, kid?" And Vance was, "just Viv", and a close real-life friend of Lucy's.
He was invited often to spend time at home with Lucy and Desi, playing with their own children, Lucie and Desi, Jr. Lucy and Desi gave him many gifts through the years including a full-size teepee, bike, and a Gretsch drum set from 1956 that he still has. Desi took him fishing and bowling, making Keith feel like one of the family. "Desi was a nice man when he wasn't drinking. When he was, you didn't want to be around him."
With the Arnaz's divorce and the end of the show, Keith became unemployed--at the age of nine! He worked on some other shows until he was 15, when he moved back home to Louisiana.
He began to drink in high school and then as he says, "went the way of other troubled child stars."
He started playing drums in a rock band and moved on to hard drugs. He wound up, in his words, "mentally, physically, and emotionally ill and spiritually lost." At this lowest point he cried out to God and promised to serve Him. He turned his life around with his new faith in Jesus. Keith says, "He is who he said he was and is the savior of the world."
His became a pioneering Christian rock band in the early '70s. Today, Keith and his wife Kathy own and operate a Christian dance company called Ballet Magnificat. He is a friendly, open and down-to-earth man, sincere, easy-going and most interesting to talk to. He says, "I went from being a child star with no purpose, at the end of his rope, near the point of suicide to having my life transformed. If I could give advice to anyone in show business, especially child stars, it would be to include Jesus and not build on worldly things."

Friday, November 11, 2005

I hate to open on a sad note but I received the news yesterday that former Pittsburgh Steeler Steve Courson, a man I liked and admired, was killed in a tree-cutting accident at his home in Pennsylvania.
Steve earned two Super Bowl rings as a star offensive guard with the Steelers, fought--and beat-- severe health problems brought on, he was convinced, by steroid use (before they were banned), and became an expert and nationally-known opponent of steroids in sports.
I spent a day with Steve at a conference last September. After his presentation, which had the audience's complete attention and interest, the two of us took a walk together. Steve was looking forward to his 50th birthday in October--an especially big event for him considering that he was so close to death just a few years before, on a waiting list then for a heart transplant, weighing 325 and consuming huge quantities of doughnuts, sodas and fast-food in his frustration at having been unfairly labled in the media as a poster boy for steroid abuse and thereby bringing his health problems on himself.
Now, just weeks before turning 50, he was the picture of health: a tall, lean, muscular, rock-hard and chisled 250 lbs., brimming with energy and enthusiasm. He had done it with diet, exercise and, most importantly, willpower and belief, ultimately confounding doctors who took him off the transplant waiting list as he trained himself back to pre-illness levels of performance and largely reversed the atrophy of his heart muscle. As we walked he shared with me his belief that a strong will could accomplish anything. "It's really easy", he said and truly believed: "Just make up your mind and you can do it!"
Steve was a gifted athlete and outstanding motivational speaker, who spent a lot of time working with young people telling them his cautionary experiences with steroids. He appeared at many events at his own expense, just to share the story he believed he should tell and giving back something to inspire others in their personal struggles.
He was a fine man and I was privileged to know him. I believe his words and example to many of us will have a ripple effect in many lives, and that is a great legacy for anyone to leave behind.