Why does a glamorous legend in her own time decide to play the role of a shopping-bag lady in her first dramatic appearance on television? ``Honey, it's only one night out of a 50-year career. I don't think it's that important. I hadn't worked in a long time because the scripts I was getting were so disgusting and all anybody really wanted me to do was Lucy all over again. So when CBS told me director George Schaefer wanted to work with me, that and fascinating subject matter was what got me to do it. I don't care how I look on screen, so that was it.''
Off screen now, Lucille Ball looks just like the Lucy that five generations of Americans have enjoyed. She is dressed in a black leather jacket and gray plaid trousers. One of television's foremost comedians for more than 30 years, she has won four Emmys.
Now, she roars with laughter. The deep booming sound is enough to start the glasses tinkling on the shelves of the chic beige-carpeted high-rise apartment she rents far from her comfortable Beverly Hills home next to the James Stewarts. She and her husband (ex-comic, now-producer Gary Morton) have chosen the Upper East Side apartment so they won't be too far from her grandchildren, who live with daughter Lucie Arnaz and her husband, Lawrence Luckenbill, in a large West Side apartment. Lucille is in New York to promote Stone Pillow (CBS, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 9-11 p.m.).
The special, written by Rose Leiman Goldemberg and directed by Schaefer, stars Miss Ball as a pitiful but independent shopping-bag lady who winds up in a house in the country, courtesy of a caring young social worker. Miss Ball, used to broad comedy, plays Florabelle just a bit too broad, and there is always just a touch too much of Lucy in her characterization. However, despite the lack of sensitivity in the whole production, the fact is that it is one of the few times that television has tried a serio us drama about a segment of the population which needs to be noticed rather than ignored.
Miss Ball admits that she didn't do much research for the role, other than reading a book about shopping-bag ladies by Anne Marie Russo. ``I did not talk to any of them . . . but I don't believe what everybody says . . . that they are on the streets because they want to be there. Well, that may be true for some of the older, more disturbed ladies who just don't have any more hope left, but I don't believe that's true of all of them.''
Miss Ball says she named her character Florabelle after her grandmother. ``Not that she was anything like a bag lady, but because she, too, had fortitude and guts. She was a pioneer lady, and I just wanted this bag lady I played to be independent and have her own little survival kit, her own way of doing things without begging. Of course, one reason Florabelle wouldn't take money handouts was because nobody would let her in anyplace to spend it.''
So, isn't the happy ending of the special -- a home in the country for Florabelle -- just a bit unrealistic?
Miss Ball shakes her head of orange-red hair vigorously.
``So much of the show is down that I wanted at least an ending that was up. It is possible. In fact, it would be more of a fantasy for a caring person not to do something to help. Every place I go in the country I see little houses, caretakers' cottages and whatnot, that are not occupied. The social worker in the film is a college girl probably with wealthy parents or friends. Why couldn't she find a place for Florabelle, for one person? It is merely a bandaid of help for a problem as widesp read as this, but one person can help sometimes. Maybe it will make me think the next time I pass somebody like that.''
Miss Ball says she is concerned that there are going to be many more homeless people in the streets in the near future. ``It's happening every day. They're dredging up blocks of little houses in California where people thought they were set for life, senior citizens with no place else to go. In New York City, there are so many people who cannot afford the enormous rents. I knew one couple in Los Angeles who had to live in their car because they couldn't afford anything else. They are sitting in the car in some park right now and won't stay in the homes of friends. Things like that are happening all over the country. It's a terrible situation. Maybe this picture will make people think more about it.''
Then she interrupts herself. ``But the truth is, that is not why I did this picture. I was just looking for a character to do. It was just the idea of working again with a good director. It's been a long time since I've worked or felt like working. Sure, I have scripts offered to me, but I can't believe the language in them.''
Miss Ball says she watches television and favors ``The Cosby Show'' and ``Golden Girls,'' both on NBC. She doesn't feel that some objections to ``Golden Girls'' are justified. ``We're talking about an older group of ladies, and they have serious problems and a different vocabulary. They have to handle their problems with humor some of the time, and so what if it is a little earthy? It's not gross like some things I have seen on cable. But there are a lot of people watching television who don't know from
that age group, those worries, those lonesome years. . . .''
Could the old ``Lucy'' shows make it in television today?
``They are making it. In 129 countries. If I were doing it today I'd want the same writers, the same people, the same silly situations. The powers that be might want it more realistic to fit today's market, but I'd never do that.'' She feels that ``The Cosby Show'' is a lot more believable than the Lucy shows. ``Our shows were a lot of unbelievable things that we brought to fruition. The more unbelievable, the more impossible, the more fun we had. Cosby is wonderful, and that very believability is wh at makes it great . . . just as our exaggeration made us so funny.''
What would Lucille Ball like to be remembered for?
``I don't have an epitaph for myself. I will just be grateful if I am remembered at all. You know, it's nice to have entertained five generations.''
Does she feel complete without playing Lucy each day?
``No. I really loved that arena. And people like Vivian [Vance].'' She becomes teary-eyed but restrains herself in a moment.
``But I have Gary and my children and grandchildren, and I have a lot of other things I didn't have then. You can't go on forever, you know. . . . I never expected to be around this long, and the length of time I've been around never occurred to me until one day recently I found out that I was outliving my supply of henna. I managed to get some from Egypt . . . so guess I'm in good shape,'' she says as she fluffs the familiar henna-colored hair that is her