Carol Burnett is an American actress and comedienne best known for her eponymous variety show that ran on CBS from 1967 to 1978.
Burnett was born in San Antonio, Texas to Jodie and Louise Burnett. Both of her parents, particularly her father, suffered from alcoholism, and at a young age she was left with her grandmother.
Burnett moved to Hollywood, California with her grandmother where she was raised in a boarding house.
When Burnett was in the fourth grade she created, for a short time, an imaginary twin sister named Karen, with Shirley Temple-like dimples.
Motivated to further the pretence Burnett recalled fondly that she "fooled the other boarders in the rooming house where we lived by frantically switching clothes and dashing in and out of the house by the fire escape and the front door. Then I became exhausted and Karen mysteriously vanished."
She graduated from Hollywood High School and then attended University of California, Los Angeles, eventually working her way up through bit parts on TV.
Burnett's mother disapproved of Carol's acting desires: "She wanted me to be a writer. She said you can always write, no matter what you look like. When I was growing up she told me to be a little lady, and a couple of times I got a whack for crossing my eyes or making funny faces. Of course, she never, I never dreamed I would ever perform."
Mrs. Burnett died while Carol was still looking to gain a foothold in a Broadway role.
After several minor appearances in theatre and television, Burnett was first noticed in the mid-1950s with a comic novelty love song "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles" (Dulles was US Secretary of State at the time).
Burnett also appeared during this time in an NBC sitcom, Stanley, with Buddy Hackett, which lasted one season. She also appeared as a regular on one of television's earliest game shows, Pantomime Quiz.
Burnett's first true taste of success came with her appearance on Broadway in the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress. In the same year, she became a regular player on The Garry Moore Show, which she would continue until 1962.
She won an Emmy in 1962 for her "Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series" on the show. Burnett portrayed a number of characters, most memorably a put-upon cleaning woman.
With her success on the Moore show, she finally rose to headliner status and appeared in the 1962 special Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, co-starring her friend Julie Andrews.
Comedy legend Lucille Ball became a friend and mentor to Burnett, and after having the younger performer guest star on The Lucy Show a number of times, Ball reportedly offered Burnett her own sitcom, to be produced by Desilu. Burnett declined the offer, however, deciding instead to put together a variety show.
The two remained close friends until Ball's death in 1989. Ball sent flowers every year on her birthday. When Burnett awoke on the day of her 56th birthday in 1989, she discovered via the morning news that Ball had died. Later that afternoon, the flowers Lucy had arranged arrived at Burnett's house, with the note "Happy Birthday, Kid. Love, Lucy."
The Carol Burnett Show
The hour-long Carol Burnett Show debuted in 1967 and was a huge success, garnering 22 Emmy Awards. Its ensemble cast included Tim Conway (who was a guest player until the 9th season), Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and the teenaged Vicki Lawrence (who was cast partly because she looked like a young Burnett).
The network did not want her to do a variety show because they believed only men could be successful at variety but Burnett's contract required that they give her one season of whatever kind of show she wanted to make.
Burnett became known for her Tarzan yell during many shows, and for ending each show by tugging her ear, which was a message to the grandmother who had raised her to let her know that she was doing well and that she loved her.
The show also became known for its closing theme song, with the following lyrics: I'm so glad we had this time together / Just to have a laugh and sing a song / Seems we just got started and before you know it / Comes the time we have to say, 'So long.'
During the show's run, Burnett's grandmother died. On the Lifetime Channel's "Intimate Portrait" biography on Burnett, she tearfully recalled her grandmother's last moments:
"She said to my husband Joe from her hospital bed 'Joe, you see that spider up there?' There was no spider but Joe said he did anyhow. She said 'Every few minutes a big spider jumps on that little spider and they go at it like rabbits!!' And then she died. There's laughter in everything!"
The Carol Burnett Show ceased production in 1978, and is generally regarded as the last successful major network variety show, to date. It continues to have success in syndicated reruns.
During this time, she was open to her fans, never refusing to give an autograph and had limited patience for "Those who've made it, then complain about loss of privacy."
Other roles and appearances
After the show ended, Burnett assumed a number of roles that departed from comedy. She appeared in several dramatic roles, most notably in the television movie Friendly Fire. She appeared as Beatrice O'Reilly in the film Life of The Party: The Story of Beatrice, a story about a woman fighting her alcoholism.
Her other film work includes The Four Seasons, Annie, and Noises Off.
Burnett also made occasional returns to the stage: in 1974, she appeared at The Muny Theater in St. Louis, Missouri in I Do! I Do! and 11 years later, she took the supporting role of Carlotta Campion in the 1985 concert performance of Stephen Sondheim's Follies.
Burnett made frequent appearances as a panelist on the game show Password — an association she maintained until the early 1980s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, she made several attempts at starting a new variety program. She also appeared briefly on the Carol Burnett Show spinoff Mama's Family as her character Eunice. She also appeared in the mini-series Fresno, which mirrored the nighttime soap opera Falcon Crest; Burnett played the matriarch.
Burnett returned to TV in the mid-1990s as a supporting character on the sitcom Mad About You when she played Theresa Stemple, the mother of main character Jamie Buchman (Helen Hunt).
Burnett has long been a vocal fan of the soap opera All My Children. She realised a dream when Agnes Nixon created the role of Verla Grubbs for her. Burnett suddenly found herself playing the long-lost daughter of Langley Wallingford (Louis Edmonds), and raising hell for her stepmother Phoebe Tyler-Wallingford (the late Ruth Warrick).
She hosted a 25th anniversary special about the show in 1995 and made a brief cameo as Verla Grubbs on the January 5, 2005 episode celebrating the 35th anniversary of the program.
Due to scheduling conflicts, the scene was shot on the Los Angeles set of General Hospital instead of the New York City set where All My Children is taped.
Burnett most recently appeared on the popular television program Desperate Housewives playing Eleanor, the cold stepmother of lead character Bree Hodge (portrayed by Marcia Cross).
Burnett drew attention in 1981, when she sued the National Enquirer for libel after the tabloid newspaper described her alleged public drunkenness, purportedly with Henry Kissinger. Burnett was particularly sensitive to the accusations because of her parents' own alcoholism.
The case was a landmark for libel cases involving celebrities, although the unprecedented $1.6-million verdict for Burnett was reduced to about $800,000 on appeal, and eventually settled out of court.
She donated a portion of that award to the University of Hawaii saying she hoped the suit would teach aspiring journalists the dangers of defaming individuals in articles. The money was used to fund Law and Ethics courses at the school.
Burnett said at the time that she didn't care if she just won "carfare", and that the lawsuit was a matter of principle.
In March 2007, she sued 20th Century Fox for copyright infringement, trademark violation, statutory violation of right of privacy, and misappropriation of name and likeness over the use of an altered version of her signature closing song and the portrayal of her charwoman character in an episode of Family Guy.
Personal and Family Life
The first house Burnett lived in was the Beverly Hills house formerly owned by Harry James and Betty Grable. Growing up in rented rooms, a home was "a luxury" as "A Murphy bed was (her) idea of spacious."
She married Don Saroyan on December 15, 1955; the couple divorced in 1962.
On May 4, 1963, Burnett married TV producer Joe Hamilton, a divorced father of eight, with whom she had three daughters: actress and writer Carrie Hamilton, Jody Hamilton and singer Erin Hamilton. The marriage ended in divorce in 1984, and Hamilton later died of cancer.
In 2001, she married Brian Miller.
Personal tragedy struck Burnett in January 2002 when her daughter Carrie Hamilton died of lung and brain cancer at the age of 38. Carrie Hamilton was addicted to drugs as a teenager, but overcame it with her husband's help.
Burnett and her daughter wrote a play together, Hollywood Arms, adapted from Burnett's bestselling memoir, One More Time. The Broadway production featured Linda Lavin as Burnett's character's beloved grandmother.
Awards and Recognition
Burnett was a recipient of the 2003 Kennedy Center Honors at the age of 70.
President George W. Bush awarded Burnett the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 9, 2005.