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.

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STARFIGHTER77 41 months ago
STARFIGHTER77 41 months ago
Oh...JOHNNY-- PAUL JASON...also. Definitely OPIE TAYLORs' Best Chum !!
STARFIGHTER77 41 months ago
KEITH THIBIDOUX..( any chance : THIBIDOUX ,LA. ? ) Why was he referred to as RICHARD KEITH in this article ?? ( A stage name ?)
STARFIGHTER77 41 months ago
RICHARD KEITH....NOT " KEITH RICHARD ".....The little RICKY Desi Arnez' Son ..on the trap -- set o' Drums . How long did RICHARD K. rehearse on those Drums ?? I remember this sharp Lad as one of OPIEs' main Pals !! Was great Acting by all on the Show !!
Wiseguy 41 months ago
Something wrong here: The Swift Show Wagon was last seen in October 1955. Then "In a matter of days, Arn(a)z and Ball had hired Thibodeaux..." And then he didn't appear on I Love Lucy until the fall of 1956?
According to "The I Love Lucy Book" by Bart Andrews, during May 1956 nearly 200 boys were interviewed for the part of Little Ricky; Horace Heidt brought his "Youth Opportunity" show to town and Keith Thibodeaux was one of the acts. Keith's father heard that Desilu was looking for a young actor, brought him to audition and that's where Desi first saw Keith.
JHP 41 months ago
That kids talent was so scary good - He would shame most of todays music "stars"
andyp777 42 months ago
And Keith Thibodeaux went on to become the man behind the kit for the Christian rock group David & the Giants. Due to Keith's Louisiana connection, D&TG played at my high school Welcome Back event in the fall of '82. That was one of my first concerts I ever saw. Yet another instance where faith is not mentioned on here (like Otis/Hal Smith from TAGS)....
andyp777 andyp777 42 months ago
I forgot to mention I lived in Baton Rouge, my late dad's hometown, during high school & part of college (Dad went to LSU while I attended Tulane University in Nawlins/New Orleans)....
JHP andyp777 41 months ago
Nawlins - LOVE the music and the food (hate the heat:))

Also a closet Saints fan
frances3agape andyp777 41 months ago
My younger brother lived about 5 years in Baton Rouge before transferring to Houston.
Had the BEST week visiting him fall of 1989 when Tennessee played LSU in football (don't remember who won). Ate TWICE Ralph & Kacoo’s seafood restaurant and I still have the t-shirt from there.
WooHoo - Hubby and I watched and celebrated LSU's win over Florida today !
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