Making a movie about a real-life person is never easy. But it's considerably more difficult when that person was one of the most beloved figures in America.

Such were the problems encountered by the makers of "Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter," which airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Ch. 5.Even before her death, Lucille Ball was an American institution, beloved by millions. And making a movie about an icon is bound to ruffle some feathers.

Tackling these nearly impossible roles are Frances Fisher as Lucy and Maurice Benard as Desi. And while Fisher succeeds rather well at her task, Benard fails miserably.

In makeup, Fisher bears a sometimes-startling resemblance to Ball. But what makes her portrayal of Lucy believable is her ability to act, not simply do an imitation.

Benard, on the other hand, is a disaster as Desi. Every moment he's on screen you're left with the uncomfortable feeling that there's some guy up there doing a bad Desi Arnaz imitation, complete with a bad Cuban accent.

And having Benard lip sync to actual recordings of Arnaz singing simply looks ludicrous.

The biggest problem with this movie is that it's obvious there's only one reason it was produced - to bring in big ratings by trading on the name of Lucille Ball.

"Before the Laughter" is an appropriate title for the movie - there isn't much in the way of humor here.

The movie opens just as the couple are about to embark on the most storied chapter in their careers - the night in 1951 when the first episode of "I Love Lucy" was filmed in Hollywood.

But it's mostly a series of flashbacks beginning 12 years earlier at Lucy and Desi's first meeting - she was a B-movie actress and he was a band leader appearing in his first movie.

From there, the movie degenerates into a repetitive series of depressing incidents - Lucy loves Desi, Desi loves Lucy but just can't help cheating on her, Lucy threatens to leave Desi, Desi wins Lucy back . . . over and over again.

And it throws in a bit about Desi's heavy drinking for good (or bad) measure.

About the only moments of humor here are recreations of Lucy-Desi routines that come off as pale ghosts of the original - more desperate than funny.

It's not exactly "Mommy Dearest," but it's certainly less than Lucy and Desi deserve.

One can't help but feel that CBS - Lucy's home for decades - owes her memory more than this shallow movie.

- ON THE COVER: Frances Fisher and Maurice Benard portray television's most famous couple in "Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter" on Sunday at 8 p.m. on Ch. 5.