I had spent most of the morning preparing for the interview, combing newspaper files, reference books and anything else I could get my hands on for information about Television's Leading Lady, Lucille Ball.
I had only been on the job for a couple of months, and I felt somehow . . . well, unworthy to speak on the telephone to The Redhead, The Queen of Comedy, star of stage, screen and "I Love Lucy." But when the CBS press guy called and offered me a chance to interview her in preparation for a 1984 special called "An All-Star Party for Lucille Ball," I just couldn't pass it up - intimidated though I was.As the hour of our interview approached, I felt a growing sense of anxiety. What if I asked her The World's Stupidest Question? What if I slipped and called her Desi? What if I came across as the teletronic novice that I was at the time?
The phone rang.
"Hello?" I said, shakily. "Miss Ball?"
"Well, hello, Joe - how are you?"
The voice was unmistakable - deeper and a little more gravelly than I anticipated, but still bright and cheery - and decidedly Lucy.
"Joe, honey, are you there?"
My gosh, I thought, I'm talking to Lucille Ball, and she's acting like she knows me! Quick - say something clever!
"You bet!" OK - cleverness never was my strong suit. But then it got worse. I started fawning. I know, I know - definitely unprofessional. But holy cow - this was Lucy!
"Gee, Miss Ball, I can't even begin to tell you what an honor it is to be able to talk to you."
That's when she started laughing. It was a gentle laugh - maybe more of a deep, throaty chuckle. It sort of threw me off, and it took her a few seconds to recover.
"I'm sorry, darling," she said, finally. Then she became the questioner: "You're new at this, aren't you?"
I was crushed. No, I was devastated. It had only taken one sentence from me for one of Hollywood's Living Legends to pick up on my incompetence. "How could you tell?" I asked her.
"Well, your voice is pretty youthful," she said. (And of course, she was right. Nearly five years later I'm still waiting for puberty to hit my vocal chords.) "And there aren't too many of the long-timers on the beat who will admit to being `honored' to talk to anyone anymore."
She was right again. I had violated Rule No. 1 in the TV Critics Code of Conduct: When interviewing, remember that you're doing them a favor, not the other way around.
But Lucy didn't seem to mind. In fact, she seemed absolutely delighted with my innocence.
"You're doing a wonderful job," she said several times while patiently answering my questions, all of which I'm sure she had answered many, many times before. When my 15 minutes were up, I thanked her - gratefully - for her time.
"Why are we stopping," she said crisply. "Don't you have any more questions?"
"Well, yes," I said, "I do have a few more. But your manager said you had to talk to someone in Philadelphia promptly . . . "
"Who am I talking to in Philadelphia?" she asked of someone who was with her in Los Angeles. "Lee Winfrey? I've talked to Lee dozens of times. He can wait a few minutes before he talks to me again. Joe and I are just starting to get acquainted."
And she returned her attention to me: "Now, what was your next question, honey?"
Two years later I had another chance to interview Lucy as she was preparing to make her return to series television in ABC's short-lived "Life With Lucy." At the start of our time together I took advantage of the opportunity to thank her for the kindness she had shown me in my first telephone interview with a star of her magnitude. She accepted my thanks graciously even though it was easy to see that she didn't remember the incident.
But I did. I always will. It came back to me clearly as I re-read the results of that interview on Wednesday, the day Lucille Ball died. To be perfectly honest, the story isn't anything to get excited about. It's pretty bland, actually. But the interview was a gem. A treasure. One of a kind.
Just like Lucy.