TO MILLIONS OF I LOVE LUCY FANS, he was Little Ricky Ricardo, the adorable pint-size drummer boy who was the beguiling son of TV's most hilarious couple. But for Keith Thibodeaux, who for three years played Little Ricky, early stardom as the make-believe son of real-life husband and wife Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz was a mixed blessing. "As I got older and people introduced me as Little Ricky, I was like, 'Arrgghhh,' " Thibodeaux says, with a groan. "It was a good memory that became a bad one. I just wanted to get away from it."

Ten years old when Lucy ended, and 15 when his parents split and he abandoned his acting career, Thibodeaux (pronounced Tib-a-doe) did indeed escape—into drugs and raucous ramblings with a series of rock bands. Like many child stars who find themselves adrift as adults, he battled depression and thoughts of suicide. But these days Thibodeaux, now 43 and the only surviving member of the I Love Lucy cast, has found his moorings as husband and father as well as executive director of Ballet Magnificat, a Christian ballet company and dance school in Jackson, Miss. He has salvaged his childhood memories, both good and bad, for a new autobiography, Life After Lucy (New Leaf Press). "I'm finally able to look at Little Ricky as an old friend," says Thibodeaux, reigning happily amid the chaos of crates and boxes in the dance studio, which recently moved to new digs. "But there was a period when he seemed like an enemy."

A precocious child who began playing drums at 2, Thibodeaux was discovered in 1954 when scouts for The Horace Heidt Show (a kind of Star Search forerunner) spotted him in his hometown of Bunkie, La., and offered him $500 a week to join Heidt's orchestra. Billed as "the world's tiniest drummer," Thibo-deaux traveled the country with his father, Lionel, who quit his job as an insurance salesman, while mother Mary Ann stayed home with the couple's five other children. After the entire family moved to Los Angeles in 1955, Lionel had Keith audition for Lucy and Desi, who had launched a nationwide search for a child actor to play Little Ricky. Though Keith had no acting experience, a drum de deux between the 39", 40-lb., boy and Arnaz, the 39-year-old Cuban former bandleader, cinched the casting. "This is the kid!" Thibodeaux recalls Lucy blurting. "This is Little Ricky!"

Acting didn't come easily to Thibodeaux. He had to overcome a persistent stutter, and at one point a hypnotist was brought in to help allay his stage fright. Though tough professionals on the set, Lucy and Desi treated young Keith as one of the family, and he became best friends with the real Arnaz kids—Desi Jr., now 41 and an actor who played Desi Sr. in 1991's The Mambo Kings, and his cabaret-singer sister, Lucie, 43, who lives in Upstate New York with her husband and their five children. Even now, says Thibodeaux, "we're still like brothers and sisters."

After Lucy aired its final episode in 1960, he went on to appear in several TV series, including a four-year stint as Opie's best pal in The Andy Griffith Show. But after his mother filed for divorce in 1966, Thibodeaux said goodbye to his Hollywood friends and moved back to Louisiana with his mother and siblings. With most of his savings from his $800-a-week career in television already spent—most went to support his family—Thibodeaux says he and the others barely scraped by. At high school in Lafayette, his past came back to haunt him: "Little Ricky" became a term of derision for the skinny 5'6" Thibodeaux. "I was small," he says, "and didn't want to be known as a little kid all my life."

Looking for a little respect, Thibodeaux began playing drums for local rock groups and, at 19, he dropped out of the University of Southwestern Louisiana and joined David and the Giants, a band he would perform with on and off for nearly 20 years. At the same time, he freely indulged his appetites for booze, pot, LSD, cocaine and heroin. "It got to the point where I couldn't be happy anymore," he says. "What I needed was a miracle, and I got it." In 1977 he met and married Kathy Denton, then a 19-year-old dancer on her way to stardom with the Ballet Mississippi. By 1979 they had a daughter, Tara, now 15, and Thibodeaux had gone clean, returned to college in Jackson and become a born-again Christian.

Thibodeaux hasn't played the drums professionally since 1990, when he quit the Giants and went to work for Ballet Magnificat, which Kathy founded in 1985. But he occasionally bangs away at the classic drum kit Lucille Ball gave him as a present in 1957, and which he keeps in his modest single-story home in a historic district of Jackson. "I enjoyed my times with Desi and Lucy, and I miss them," Thibodeaux says of his late costars. "That's definitely the biggest thing I ever did. But," he adds, indicating his own close-knit family, "it's not the best."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
RON RIDENHOUR in New Orleans

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  • Ron Ridenhour.