American actress, comedienne, singer, dancer, and writer Carol Burnett (b. San Antonio, TX, 26 April 1933) is one of the nation’s most admired and beloved performers. After scoring a big hit on Broadway and several superlative television appearances on The Garry Moore Show, Carol moved from New York to Los Angeles to star in her own variety show. From 1967 The Carol Burnett Show, combining songs, dancing, and comedy sketches ranging from movie and advertising parodies to situation pieces featuring her own distinctive characters, ran for eleven years on CBS television.
Both parents of Carol Burnett were alcoholics, often depending on welfare for their support, and they divorced when she was about six. She and her little half-sister Chrissy were left in the care of her grandmother, Mabel Eudoria White, to grow up in a seedy boarding house in a poor section of Hollywood, California. The first alter ego that Carol created for herself, at ten, was an imaginary twin sister named Karen; fellow boarders in the house were entertained to see Karen and Carol, distinguished only by different outfits, dashing in and out the front door, up and down the fire escape, like Keystone Cops.
Carol graduated from Hollywood High School in 1951 and won a scholarship to UCLA, where she planned to study journalism. Then, developing an interest in writing plays, she switched to theatre arts and found herself performing in front of an audience. The first roar of laughter that greeted this once shy and retiring wallflower sealed her fate. She and her boyfriend, Don Saroyan, quit college in 1954 and moved to New York to seek their acting fortunes.
She struggled for a year as a hat-check girl, looking unsuccessfully for performing jobs in the musical theatre, and at last won a minor role on a popular children’s television program, playing the girlfriend of a ventriloquist’s dummy. This led to a starring role in a sitcom opposite Buddy Hackett, but that flopped after only two episodes. Unemployed again, she tried the cabaret circuit. Here Burnett hit pay dirt with a parody song called “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles” (Dulles was the U.S. Secretary of State at the time), and was invited to sing it on The Jack Paar Tonight Show and Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town. She also appeared on The Arlene Francis Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and on Pantomime Quiz, one of television’s earliest game shows.
Then in 1959 came the great stroke of luck she’d been destined for, the role that fit her like a glove: Princess Winnifred (or “Fred”) in Mary Rodgers’s and Marshall Barer’s Once Upon a Mattress. It started off-Broadway, but was such a sensation it could not be kept off the Great White Way for long. It received a Tony® nomination for Best Musical in 1960, and Carol Burnett got a nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.
Carol Burnett was introduced on The Garry Moore Show in 1958 and soon became a regular player, developing a number of comic characters, the most memorable of which was the long-suffering charwoman who later became her signature alter ego. (Nearly fifty years later she initiated a lawsuit in federal court against 20th Century Fox for misappropriation of name and likeness over this same character. She did not win.) In 1962 she won an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, and continued as a mainstay of Moore’s show until it went off the air in 1964. Also in 1962 she appeared in a television special with her friend Julie Andrews and was awarded another Emmy (Outstanding Musical) for Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall. She was also a guest star on The Twilight Zone, and a few years later on Get Smart, four episodes of The Lucy Show, The Bob Hope Show, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. The star of this last-named show, Jim Nabors, became a close friend (as did Lucy) and later, when Carol had a variety show of her own, Nabors would be the featured guest on the first broadcast of each of its eleven seasons.
Lucille Ball, it is said, offered to produce a sitcom starring Burnett, but apparently Burnett turned it down, preferring to put together a variety show instead. Her show played a total of 178 weekly hour-long episodes from 1967 to 1978, winning overall twenty-five Emmys, eight Golden Globes, a comparable number of nominations, and numerous awards from other entities. Featured cast members on The Carol Burnett Show included Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and teenager Vicki Lawrence, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Carol herself. Original skits (“The Family,” popular enough to spin off as an independent TV show) alternated with unforgettable parodies of commercials (“Ritalis Dry Control”), television dailies (“Up Your Income,” “As the Stomach Turns”) and movies (“Went With the Wind”). At the close of each episode, singing “I’m so glad we had this time together,” Burnett would tug an earlobe as a signal to her adored grandma that things were going great.
Burnett made a few comedy films while her variety show was still in production: (Pete ‘n’ Tillie 1972; The Front Page 1974, A Wedding 1978), but later she took on a number of serious roles in films made for TV (Friendly Fire 1979, Life of The Party: The Story of Beatrice 1982).
For many of these she received nominations for Golden Globe Awards (as she did for her portrayal of Miss Hannigan in the film version of Annie), but she never actually won that Award or any nomination for an Oscar®.
Burnett returned to the stage occasionally: in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1974, she appeared with Rock Hudson in I Do! I Do!, and in New York eleven years later she took part in the concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. She was a frequent panelist on Password until the early 1980s, and guested on several television series: Mama’s Family (the spinoff from her own show), Fresno, Mad About You, and All My Children.
Carol Burnett has been married three times: she was divorced from college sweetheart Don Saroyan in 1962 after six years of marriage; in 1963 she married Joe Hamilton, a divorced father of eight. Hamilton was the producer of The Carol Burnett Show for its duration; the couple divorced in 1984 and Hamilton died in 1991. They had three daughters, Carrie, Jody, and Erin. Actress Carrie, who had been addicted to drugs as a teenager, collaborated with her mother on an adaptation for Broadway of Burnett’s 1986 memoir One More Time (Hollywood Arms 2002), but died the same year of lung and brain cancer at age 38. Burnett married Brian Miller, principal drummer and contractor for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, in 2001.
Burnett’s One More Time relates how in 1981 she struck a blow for truth in journalism by winning a suit against The National Enquirer. The tabloid had reported an alleged public altercation between Burnett and Henry Kissinger, claiming that Burnett was drunk. The case, although it initially brought in an unprecedented $1.6 million verdict in Burnett’s favor, was ultimately settled out of court.
Carol Burnett returned to Broadway in 1995 after a long absence, to earn a Tony Award® nomination for her role opposite Philip Bosco in Moon Over Buffalo. On New Year’s Day, 1998, she was the Grand Marshal of the 109th Rose Parade; in 2003 she was a recipient of Kennedy Center Honors, and two years later George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2009 she got another Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), and in December was inducted into the California Hall of Fame by Governor Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. Now, in 2010, Burnett has a new memoir out: This Time Together.
Burnett’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6439 Hollywood Boulevard, as she stipulated, “Right in front of where the old Warner Brothers Theater was, at Hollywood and Wilcox.” It was in that theater that she was rudely fired as an usherette in 1951, for suggesting to a couple of patrons that they wait until the last ten minutes of Strangers on a Train was over, so as not to have the ending spoiled for them.