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Son Celebrates Father of 'I Love Lucy'

3 May, 2006 By: Brendan Howard

Lucille Ball plants one on "I Love Lucy" producer-writer-creator Jess Oppenheimer.

It's no wonder Gregg Oppenheimer thinks writers don't get the credit they deserve. His dad, Jess Oppenheimer, was creator, producer and head writer on “I Love Lucy” for the first five of its six seasons. Gregg has helped to produce the show on DVD, the sixth season of which is available (four-DVD set $54.99) from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

“Writers are the unsung heroes of TV and movies,” he said. “There are few writers people can name.”

Yet, those writers are the ones who put the funny lines in actors' mouths. During “Lucy's” 1950s run, people were even less sophisticated about it.

“Back when Dad was doing ‘Lucy,' they thought it was a reality show,” he said. “Somebody was introduced to my dad at a party. He said, ‘“I Love Lucy's” a half-hour a week. What do you do the rest of the week?’

What did he do? Jess, stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and the rest of the cast and writers practiced, practiced, practiced. In a time before strict union rules, the cast would stay late into the night rehearsing to provide an experience almost unmatched today.

“Today, every scene's done two or three times [on sitcom sets],” he said. “It's treated like a privilege for people to sit there for six hours.”

But not “Lucy.”

“It burns me up when I hear someone say the laugh track started on ‘I Love Lucy,’ he said. “People use ‘I Love Lucy' laughter for laugh tracks. They almost never did a retake. What you're hearing is the actual reaction.”

Gregg said the cast and crew respected the audience and wanted to entertain. The “Lucy” record for recording a nearly half-hour episode was just 45 minutes.

Gregg, who was born just a few days after the pilot was filmed, learned all this stuff later. He researched the show to finish his dad's posthumous memoir, Laughs, Luck … and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time, and put that work to work on liner notes and extras for the DVD sets.

Even though his dad wasn't involved in the sixth season, Gregg took advantage of Paramount's bigger budget to load it with extras, including commentaries with Desi and Lucy's grown-up son as well as “I Dream of Jeannie” star Barbara Eden, who showed up in an episode.

“Each set, I wanted to put more,” he said. But low budgets at Columbia, where the show was produced, stymied him. Gregg said people see the extras on this set and always say, “They blew it before. They should have done this for all of them.”

Not surprising is that people want more “Lucy.” The show experienced a resurgence in the past few years, with syndication now joined with DVD sets and merchandise. It was at a gift store during a DVD press tour that someone asked Gregg what his dad would say about a store full of Lucy memorabilia.

“He'd say, ‘I wish I'd kept a piece of the merchandising.’

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