For 11 years beginning in 1967, Carol Burnett (born 1933) was the undisputed leader in television entertainment. On her long-running program for the CBS television network, The Carol Burnett Show, the multi-talented Burnett expanded and upgraded the concept of the television variety show, mixing song and dance routines, elegant costumes, and zany hu mor sketches in ways that appealed to a massive populous audience. She was one of the first actors to be allowed complete control of every aspect of the show's creation, without excessive interference from network brass. Since the show's final season in 1978, Burnett has remained active as a producer, actor, and playwright who is respected by her colleagues for her strong work ethic and adored by her audiences for her decidedly unpretentious demeanor.
Burnett was born on April 26, 1933, in San Antonio, Texas; her family moved to Hollywood, California when she was three. Her father suffered from alcoholism and chronic tuberculosis; her mother was a quick-tempered alcoholic who aspired to become a writer within Hollywood social circles. Her parents divorced when she was eight and Burnett was raised by her grandmother on her mother's side, a feisty old woman who instilled the young girl with values, as well as taking her to the movies up to eight times a week (Burnett's signature ear-tug at the close of her shows was a tribute to "Nanny"). "You might say 'poor' thing when you heard my parents drank and we were on relief," the actor told Newsday reporter Blake Green in 1999, "but that was the way it was with everyone in that neighborhood. I never had a picture that anything could be different, except in the movies, and I knew that was fantasy."
When Burnett started college, she got a job as an usher at a Warner Brothers-owned movie theater. She was fired after she refused to seat a couple during the last five minutes of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. When Burnett was given her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1975, she asked that it be placed in front of that theater.
Burnett attended UCLA in 1951, originally to pursue a degree in English writing. She attended an actor's workshop and was so significantly enamored with the craft that she decided it would be her calling. As part of her final exam for her theater major, her theater professor made the class perform at an elegant black-tie party he was holding. A patron attending the party who saw Burnett perform gave her a small amount of money to go to New York City, in the hopes of entering show business. She graduated in 1954, left California for New York City and married her first husband, classmate Don Saroyan, soon afterwards. After a few stints in local shows, nightclubs, and some high-profile appearances on Jack Paar and Ed Sullivan's television shows, Burnett made it to the Broadway stage in a big way; in May 1959, she had landed the lead role as Princess Winnifred Woebegone in Once Upon A Mattress (a stage adaptation of the fable "The Princess And The Pea"), under the direction of the acclaimed director George Abbott.
While appearing in Once Upon A Mattress, Burnett was discovered by representatives for television personality Garry Moore, who had a successful evening variety show on CBS. She auditioned for the show and after a few guest appearances, she was added to the full-time cast of The Garry Moore Show in November of that year; she stayed on until 1962. Audiences were enamored by Burnett's physical comedy, goofball facial contortions, and self-deprecating antics. While working on the Moore show, Burnett still found the time to record an album, appear in plays, host a radio show, and guest star in television shows, including an episode of The Twilight Zone. Her success had taken a toll on her marriage, however, and in late September of that year, she and Saroyan divorced.
After leaving the The Garry Moore Show, Burnett appeared on Broadway in the short-lived Fade Out-Fade In, some television specials, and opposite Dean Martin in her first film, Who's Been Sleeping In My Bed? She was offered the lead role in a musical comedy called The Luckiest People but suggested to the producers that they instead cast a then-unknown actress named Barbara Streisand (the show was later retitled Funny Girl). In May 1963, she married Joe Hamilton, a successful television producer she met on the set of the Moore show. But Burnett's biggest accomplishment was yet to come. During her frenetic schedule, representatives from CBS kept enticing the multi-talented performer with offers to perform in her own television show. Finally, on September 11, 1967, The Carol Burnett Show premiered on the network, with Burnett at center-stage, alongside a cast of regulars including Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and Vicki Lawrence.
The show was a vehicle for Burnett's range of talents, as well as a distillation of what she enjoyed in her various show-business experiences. She would start every show with a question-and-answer session with the audience, an idea she borrowed from her stint on Garry Moore's show (Moore never filmed his pre-show audience interactions for broadcast). Over the next 11 years, the show had amassed a dedicated following of viewers who tuned in to see an array of Burnett creations ranging from the lonely charwoman (a trademark character that Burnett never really thought that highly of); the high-strung Eunice Higgins (which fostered a spin-off show, Mama's Place, starring Lawrence as the elderly matron); and the highly inept office secretary Wanda Wiggins. The troupe was quite fond of doing parodies of television soap operas and classic movies. One of the show's most famous moments was during a parody of the motion picture Gone With The Wind (titled Went With The Wind). Then-fledgling designer Bob Mackie outfitted Burnett's Scarlett O'Hara character in a gown made of hanging curtains—with the rod still attached. That skit generated the longest laugh (reportedly ten minutes) from a studio audience in the history of the show. Veteran comedic actor Tim Conway joined the cast full time in 1975, adding an element of surprise with his keen improvising skills. Many viewers would tune into the show each night to see Conway routinely crack-up Burnett and the rest of the cast in mid-scene.
Sensing that the program had run its course, Burnett decided in February 1978 to end the show on a high note instead of wearing out her welcome. After 11 years, 286 shows, and being honored by her peers with 22 Emmy Awards, The Carol Burnett Show ended on March 17, 1978. The two-hour show included a recap of classic footage, some long-running characters with new routines (Eunice Wiggins and Mama finally saw a family counselor), some guest appearances, and Burnett reprising her charwoman character for a final emotional farewell. As author J. Randy Taraborrelli succinctly stated in his 1988 Burnett biography, Laughing Till It Hurts, "She tugged on her ear in recognition of Nanny. And then she turned around and walked into television history."
In the years immediately following the show, Burnett became involved in a number of projects for film, stage, and television. She appeared in two movies directed by Robert Altman, 1978's A Wedding and 1979's H.E.A.L.T.H. She teamed up with actor Charles Grodin for a TV movie based on author Erma Bombeck's book, The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank, in October 1978. The following year, she starred opposite Ned Beatty in a television movie, Friendly Fire, about a couple's search to find the truth about a son's death in Vietnam.
Working on the politically charged film sparked Burnett to voice her political beliefs publicly for the first time in her career; she was an advocate of the Women's Rights Movement and regularly spoke out in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. When her eldest daughter, Carrie, developed a drug addiction problem, Burnett and her husband got her medical treatment and went public with the story afterwards, a move that distanced her from much of the routinely secretive Hollywood elite, yet endeared her to the hearts of regular people who had friends and loved ones going through the same torment. Burnett appealed publicly for stricter drug laws and railed against stores that routinely sold drug paraphernalia.
Unlike many show-business denizens, Burnett has continued to make her private life public in an effort to stall sensationalist stories in gossip magazines. In the mid-1970s, the National Enquirer printed an anecdote that she was being drunk and disorderly in a Washington, D.C. restaurant. Incensed by the fabrication—and personally wounded because of how alcohol destroyed her parents—Burnett sued the paper. After seven years in the courts, a jury sided with the actor and awarded her a hefty sum. She gave the proceeds to charity.
In July 1981, she appeared as the treacherous Miss Hannigan in the film version of the musical, Annie and starred alongside Elizabeth Taylor in the HBO production, Between Friends, in 1984. Burnett's workload had put a strain on her marriage to producer Hamilton, and the two divorced in the spring of 1984.
In 1986, Burnett turned to writing, putting together One More Time, a memoir of her early childhood years growing up in Texas and California that took the form of an open letter to her three daughters, Carrie, Jody, and Erin. She returned to Broadway in 1995 in the comedic farce Moon Over Buffalo and appeared in several television specials. She also performed in the 1999 Stephen Sondheim tribute, Putting It Together.
In 1998, at the suggestion of her eldest daughter Carrie (herself a writer and actor), Burnett and Carrie collaborated on the script for a play based on One More Time. The project, Hollywood Arms (named after the building that housed the one-room apartment Carol and her grandmother lived in) was both fruitful and troubling for Burnett, as Carrie was under medical supervision for cancer. Sadly, Burnett's daughter died from lung cancer in January 20, 2002, just prior to the rehearsals before the project's Halloween 2002 premiere. When Newsweek writer Marc Peyser asked Burnett if her daughter would be proud of Arms landing on Broadway, she responded, "No matter what happens to our play, my baby and I went the distance. For that, I'm grateful."
During the writing of Hollywood Arms, Burnett took time out to do a speaking tour of the United States. The format of the program was the same question-and-answer sessions that ran at the beginning of each episode of her network series. The fact that audiences paid to see and hear Burnett answer questions, reminisce on her career, accept complements, and do her classic Tarzan yell, was a testimony to her affable and charismatic personality.
In November 2001, at age 69, Burnett secretly wed her third husband, Brian Miller, a percussionist for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. And although Burnett has been given generous offers to return to network television to host her own program, she has steadfastly refused. She cites the high cost of mounting a variety show production (back in the day, many of designer Mackie's gowns alone fell within the $30,000 to $50,000 price range) as well as having to deal with meddling "suits" from network offices making "suggestions" and demanding changes. Her original show has remained in syndication for years (under the title Carol Burnett And Friends), edited to a half-hour format with the musical numbers excised, due to regulations from the Musicians Union.
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