The man who didn’t love Lucy


Alden Graves

For any of you who may have been loosing sleep over what is to become of former House majority leader Eric Cantor, who lost his bid for reelection in Virginia, I’m happy to report that you needent have been concerned. There’s a saying in Washington that goes, "Former congressman never die, they just climb aboard the money train." Mr. Cantor didn’t even wait for a station stop, announcing his resignation four months before his term expires and finding a shady spot by the tracks to flag down the hedge fund express when it whizzes by. An express doesn’t generally make unscheduled stops, but Mr. Cantor has been such a good buddy, I’m sure it will slow down enough for him to hop on board. Next stop Green Acres!

I always thought that Cantor’s chief asset, as far as the Republican Party was concerned, was to make John Boehner seem a little less obnoxious. He has done very little in Washington beyond advancing the interests of the people from whom he will now, no doubt, collect a generous, well-earned reward. The rest of us will just have to take heart from the fact that we won’t have to gaze upon that smug, slightly superior visage that he constantly sported -- an aging Harry Potter gone bad.

With the "whatever will become of Eric?" question settled, I thought I would turn to a lighter topic, although it has the same theme of personal dislike that you may already have sensed. The bearer of this particular animosity, however, was Richard Burton and the recipient of the great actor’s ire was America’s favorite wacky redhead, Lucille Ball.

Carol Burnett, whose opinion of Ball teetered on the verge of hero worship, once conceded that she was "tough." Burnett softened any perception of negativity by quickly adding, "in a good way," meaning, I suppose, that anyone who reached the level of success that Lucille Ball had attained in the take-no-prisoners world of show business had better be tough.

Burton, too, had heard that she was difficult to work with. He had a great respect for Joan Crawford’s professionalism and recalled that the only way the venerable actress had been able to get through a guest appearance on "The Lucy Show" was to get royally crocked beforehand. Because of her own status in the Hollywood firmament, Ball had never had any problem attracting big names to appear on the various incarnations of her television program, including John Wayne, William Holden (she dumped a tray of food upon him), Betty Grable, Helen Hayes, and Jack Benny, who later said she took ten years off his life.

Burton and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, had agreed to an appearance, although they had been cautioned that working with Lucille Ball was "wearying." The couple was at the height of their fame with "Cleopatra" and "Virginia Woolf" recently behind them. Burton had added a layer of credibility to Taylor and she sprinkled him liberally with stardust. Together, they had merged into a single entity called Liz’n’Dick. Neither one of them was drinking much when they signed on to do a half hour on "Here’s Lucy," a fact that Mr. Burton later came to regret.

The show was a typical set up for Ball’s trademark physical comedy shtick. Lucy manages to get one of Taylor’s epically vulgar pieces of jewelry stuck on her finger right before a press conference where Taylor is expected to flaunt the ring. Mr. Burton looks alternately bored and mortified through the entire thing and Taylor, giving full vent to a plethora of irritating mannerisms, including the faux-English accent, brings a new dimension to the concept of shameless mugging. She is, in a word, terrible.

In his immaculately literate diary, which was published in 2012, Burton recalled the experience as the "nadir" of his professional life. What is surprising, reading the few pages that he devotes to Ms. Ball, is the depth of his dislike for her, which was immediate and irrevocable.

"She is a monster of staggering charmlessness," he wrote, "and monumental lack of humor. I am coldly sarcastic with her to the point of outright contempt, but she hears only what she wants to hear. She is a tired old woman who lives entirely on that weekly show which she has been doing and doing successfully for 19 years. Nineteen solid years of doing double-takes and pratfalls and up-staging and cutting out other people’s laughs if she can. She can thank her lucky stars I’m not drinking. There’s a chance I might have killed her."

Ball seemed awed by Taylor’s glittering superstardom, referring to her as "Mrs. Burton" and laughing too hard at her jokes. But she summoned Burton into her dressing room to give him a few tips on doing comedy, an insult that the actor never fully recovered from. Although he writes that he was relieved that his wife was never subjected to such a humiliating ordeal, the reader can’t escape the feeling that Burton wished Ball had tried coaching the short-fused Taylor. It might have been one mess that even Lucy couldn’t have gotten out of.

Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.


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