How Richard Keith went from being the ''World's Tiniest Drummer'' to Little Ricky to Opie's pal
"Ron and I played catch, went to eat hamburgers together," Keith said.
Largely forgotten now, Horace Heidt was one of the biggest stars in American pop culture in the 1930s. The bandleader conducted his swinging orchestras on the NBC and CBS radio networks, not to mention leading a group of harmonica players at Chicago's Drake hotel on the weekends. He scored two No. 1 hits in the late-'30s. He played himself in the 1941 Jimmy Stewart film Pot o' Gold.
But, today, Heidt is more notable for launching other careers. Art Carney of The Honeymooners was once the comedian in Heidt's big band.
Like many radio stars, by the 1950s, Heidt had made the transition to television. On one fateful evening in 1955, a certain celebrity couple happened to be watching his NBC program.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez caught Heidt's show (likely The Swift Show Wagon with Horace Heidt and the American Way) as it was featuring "the World's Tiniest Drummer," a precocious five-year-old kid from Louisiana. Young Keith Thibodeaux had been working with Heidt's band since the age of three, touring as part of Heidt's "Youth Opportunity Show."
In a matter of days, Arnez and Ball had hired Thibodeaux to play their fictional child, Little Ricky, on I Love Lucy. As a sweetener, Desilu Productions hired Keith's dad as a publicist, according to the book Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball. Arnez also changed Thibodeaux's stage name to Richard Keith. "That was weird," Keith confessed years later. "That was Desi's answer to people not being able to pronounce Thibodeaux."
From 1956 to 1960, Keith played Little Ricky on I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. He even showed off his drumming skills from time to time. There was just one hitch. The sitcoms did not credit the kid, so audiences everywhere assumed he actually was the child of Lucy and Desi. Some still might think that.
Of course, that would not be the only major sitcom experience for Keith. He is the fortunate actor who can claim he was a regular on two of the true classics — I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show.
Keith made his first appearance in Mayberry in 1962, in the season-three episode "One-Punch Opie." Oddly, if you pay close attention, you will note that in that particular story, Keith played a friend of Opie named "Carter," not his familiar Johnny Paul Jason character. Take a look:
Keith would go on to play Johnny Paul Jason in a dozen episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, growing up alongside Ronny Howard through season six. Somehow, he did not stick around long enough to plays the drums in "Opie's Group."
In a modern-day interview with the Archive of American Television, Keith explained that the writers had a different vision for Johnny Paul Jason when he won the role. "The show characterized him as this kind of guy who sort of knew all these facts," he explained, "All these weird facts, like if you put a penny on the railroad… kind of like the sage of the kids… but my character never did turn into that."
He went on to explain that everyone on the show was "very much like their characters." He would play checkers with the makeup man. The cast and crew would play guitars and sing songs. "Ron and I played catch, went to eat hamburgers together," he reminisced. He also explained that even back then, he could "see the director" in Howard, even as a kid.
"I guess I was his favorite guy to be on the show," Keith admitted.