Burnett, Carol (1933– )
One of the best-loved comedians of the twentieth century, Carol Burnett set the standard for the variety shows of the 1960s and 1970s. The Carol Burnett Show (1967–1978) offered a blend of music and comedy and showcased the popular stars of the period. The highlight of the show for many, however, was the opening, when Burnett answered questions from her audience. A number of her characters have become legend, including the Charwoman; Eunice; Norma Desmond; and the gum-chewing, wise-cracking secretary Wanda Wiggins.
Perhaps the most memorable skit of the series involved Burnett playing Scarlett O'Hara to Harvey Korman's Rhett Butler. She appeared decked out in green velvet curtains, complete with rods; the outfit has been on display at the Smithsonian Institution since 2009. Closer to Burnett's roots, the Eunice skits allowed her to laugh at the painful memory of growing up with alcoholic parents and witnessing the constant bickering of her mother and the beloved grandmother who raised her. The role of Mama in the Eunice skits was played by Vicki Lawrence, who won her place on the show because of her resemblance to Burnett. After the series went off the air, Lawrence continued the role in the sitcom Mama's Family (1983–1990), where she was occasionally visited by Burnett.
Burnett was born on April 26, 1933, in San Antonio, Texas. Her parents left her with Nanny, her maternal grandmother, and moved to Hollywood. The success they sought proved to be elusive. In the first volume of her autobiography, One More Time: A Memoir (1986), Burnett describes the poverty, disillusionment, and enduring love she experienced growing up in a family that had difficulty facing reality. She talks of Murphy, a folding bed that was never folded, as a player in the family drama. Murphy represented stability, since it frequently contained her grandmother, the most significant influence on her life.
Upon graduating from high school, Burnett had few hopes of realizing her dream of attending the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to study acting until an envelope containing $50 mysteriously showed up in her mailbox. Years later, when she wanted to move to New York to pursue a Broadway career, another benefactor lent her $1000 with the stipulation that she pay it back in five years and that she help others in need. The move to New York was fortuitous, providing both Burnett and her younger sister with a more stable, affluent lifestyle.
Burnett married Don Saroyan, her college boyfriend, in 1955. Although her career blossomed, his did not, and they divorced in 1962. She had achieved her goal of playing on Broadway in 1959 with Once upon a Mattress, but it was television that proved to be her destiny. She began with guest appearances on variety shows, such as The Steve Allen Show and The Garry Moore Show. Her big break came when she was invited to sing her comedic rendition of “I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles” on The Ed Sullivan Show. Dulles was the sedate, acerbic secretary of state at the time. When Garry Moore won a spot on the prime-time roster, he asked Burnett to come along; she appeared regularly on his show from 1958 to 1964.
SUCCESSES AND STRUGGLES
In 1962 Burnett won an Emmy, and in 1963 she married producer Joe Hamilton, with whom she had three daughters: Carrie, an actress; Jody, a businesswoman; and Erin, a homemaker and mother. Even though Burnett and Hamilton divorced, they remained close until his death in 1991. In 2001 Burnett married musician Brian Miller. When Carrie lost a battle with cancer in 2002, Burnett and her family were devastated. Her second memoir, This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, was published in 2010.
Burnett was never afraid to fight for what was important to her. As a young actress, when she was told to call agents and producers after she was “in something,” she created her own show. As an established performer she successfully sued the tabloid National Enquirer for claiming that she had been drunk in public. As a mother she fought to rescue one of her daughters from drug addiction, generously sharing her pain and frustration with the public in order to help others in similar situations. Burnett continues to battle for a number of causes, including AIDS.
Despite her assured place in the field of comedy, Burnett broke new ground with such dramatic roles as the mother of a slain soldier on television's Friendly Fire (1979). She earned critical acclaim for her hilarious performance as Miss Hannigan in the movie version of Annie (1982). In 1997, thirty-five years after winning her first Emmy on The Garry Moore Show, Burnett won her sixth for her portrayal of Jamie Buchman's mother in the popular television series Mad about You, and she acted opposite Walter Matthau in the movie The Marriage Fool in 1998.
Burnett has continued to perform in the twenty-first century. She appeared in the television movie Putting It Together (2000) and played Queen Aggravain in a new television production of Once upon a Mattress (2005). She also lent her voice to animated film adaptations of the popular children's books Trumpet of the Swan (2001) and Horton Hears a Who! (2008). Television continued to woo her, and she guest starred on Desperate Housewives (2006), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2009), Glee (2010), and All My Children (2011). She garnered Emmy nominations for the television special Carol Burnett: Show Stoppers (2001) and for her Law & Order appearance. Her most difficult task may have been to finish work on the play Hollywood Arms, which she had cowritten with her daughter Carrie. The play appeared on Broadway from October 2002 to January 2003. Burnett worked with the Pasadena Playhouse in California to establish the Carrie Hamilton Theatre.
After more than five decades in television, Burnett remains an integral part of the American psyche and an enduring memorial to television's “Golden Years.” She was honored for lifetime achievement by the Kennedy Center in 2003 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. In 2007 the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) recognized her contributions to the
entertainment industry with the broadcast of Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character.
Elizabeth Rholetter Purdy
SEE ALSO: AIDS ; All My Children ; Allen, Steve ; Animated Films ; Annie ; Broadway ; Cancer ; Conway, Tim ; Desperate Housewives ; Dr. Seuss ; Emmy Awards ; Glee ; Gone with the Wind ; Hollywood ; Korman, Harvey ; Law & Order: SVU ; Lawrence, Vicki ; The National Enquirer ; Public Television (PBS) ; Sitcom ; Smithsonian Institution ; Stand-Up Comedy ; Sullivan, Ed ; Television ; Van Dyke, Dick ; White, E. B. .
“Another Question: Why Was She So Funny?” New York Times, November 5, 2007.
Burnett, Carol. One More Time: A Memoir. Thorndike, ME: Thorndike Press, 1986.
Burnett, Carol. This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection. New York: Random House, 2010.
Carpozi, George. The Carol Burnett Story. New York: Warner Books, 1975.