By the early 1960s, variety shows seemed to be on their last legs, but in 1967 the genre was miraculously revived by The Carol Burnett Show. As one of television’s first ladies of comedy, Carol Burnett led her multiple Emmy Award–winning show for an eleven-year run. Her ability to “quick change” from an elegant hostess to a drab charwoman or a gawky little girl allowed audiences to see not only her comedic versatility but also her genuine soul and spirit. William S. Paley, founder of CBS, said of Burnett, “Audiences would laugh at her antics and sometimes her characters, but they would also laugh and sometimes cry with the Carol Burnett they quickly came to know and love.” As a young woman, Burnett strove to be on Broadway—and did just that, becoming an overnight star in the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress. But in 1964, three years before The Carol Burnett Show premiered, she said to the Los Angeles Times, “You know me, the little girl with the funny face who always wanted to be a Broadway star. Not any more. Television is so much more exciting than any other medium. I’ll take TV.”
Born in 1933 to two alcoholic parents, Carol Burnett was raised primarily by her eccentric grandmother in a small one-room apartment in a lower-class section of Hollywood. Her grandmother, Nanny, was a hypochondriac, a spirited survivor, and a bride countless times—but most importantly, she was Burnett’s sole support system. Carol and Nanny loved movie stars, and together they would see an astonishing eight movies (four double features) a week. For her neighborhood friends, Burnett would reenact the movies she had seen—these skits were the inception of the famous film parodies she developed decades later on The Carol Burnett Show.
Burnett’s dissatisfaction with her facial features and gawky body spurred her to develop a very unique and self-deprecating sense of humor—playing up her instinctual knack for physical comedy. “I’m not afraid to make myself unattractive. Most women are,” she would say. “When I was a kid, sometimes my mother would whack me upside the head when I crossed my eyes or screwed up my face. Now, the sloppier I am, the more comfortable I am, and the better I feel in a sketch comedy.” She attended UCLA and quickly became a valued member of the theater department. A building contractor who saw her and a young man named Don Saroyan (who later became Burnett’s first husband) in a school production recognized their potential and gave them each a thousand-dollar loan to help them move to New York and get started in show business.
In Manhattan, Burnett moved into the Rehearsal Club, a residence for aspiring young actresses. Initially, she struggled to find work because she could not get an audition without an agent—and she could not get an agent without experience. So Burnett decided to make her own luck. She organized The Rehearsal Club Revue of 1955, which showcased the different talents of the women she roomed with. The show was well received and resulted in Burnett being booked for her television debut on Paul Winchell’s Saturday morning children’s show. It was on that show that Burnett first tugged on her ear to say hello to her Nanny, a gesture that is now her signature move (along with her inimitable “Tarzan” calls). That thirteen-week stint on Winchell’s show in turn led to a role playing Buddy Hackett’s girlfriend on the short-lived sitcom Stanley.
In 1957, Burnett received praise for singing a comedic ballad by Ken Welch, “I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles” at the Blue Angel, a trendy Manhattan nightclub. She played a gawky girl swooning over Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state—who was, ironically, a notoriously dull man. Carol’s prowess in singing this memorably absurd song led to guest appearances on the Jack Paar and Ed Sullivan shows.
In 1959 she was cast in the Mary Rodgers–Marshall Barer musical Once Upon a Mattress as Princess Winnifred Woebegone, a goofy swamp princess. The show’s success Off-Broadway resulted in a move to Broadway, and it was subsequently adapted for TV (in 1964 and again in 1972, with Burnett reprising the role of Princess Winnifred, and in 2005, when she took on the part of Queen Aggravain). In 1959 Burnett also became a regular on The Garry Moore Show, a popular weekly variety series on which she had previously been a guest star. During that very busy period in her life she would rehearse for Garry every day and perform her Broadway show every night except Mondays. Moore became a mentor to Burnett, helping her hone her timing and character skills. In the course of a single show she would play a handful of comic characters, and as Pete Martin wrote in 1962 in the Saturday Evening Post, she was “equally convincing as a slob or a slinky glamour puss.” After a three-year run, Burnett—by now an established sketch comedienne—left the show to pursue other opportunities.
In August 1962 she signed a ten-year, one-million-dollar contract with CBS. Two months earlier, Burnett and Julie Andrews—who had first performed together on The Garry Moore Show—starred in the CBS special Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, bringing the house down with musical comedy numbers, including a rousing version of “Big D” from The Most Happy Fella (for which they donned chaps and ten-gallon hats). The success of the special earned Burnett an Emmy and led the pair to reunite for two more TV specials. In the 1966 special Carol + 2, Burnett worked with Lucille Ball, another of her mentors. Burnett once said of Ball, “She was strong. She knew what she wanted and her crew worshipped her.”
In 1964 she returned to Broadway in the musical revue Fade Out–Fade In, which had some funny bits and songs (by Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green), but was not a surefire hit; the experience was an unpleasant one, as Burnett had to leave the show several months into the run after sustaining injuries in a car accident. She also cohosted the variety series The Entertainers, which ran for only one season on CBS.
For years, Burnett had been encouraged to do her own television show, but she always resisted, never wanting to take the spotlight. Her contract with CBS, however, stipulated that she either create a show for herself or be placed in one that CBS chose for her—and she did not want to get stuck in a situation comedy where she would have to play the same character every week. (“I’ll never do a TV series. That’s it. Once you’ve been a series character, you’re that character for life. They would probably name me Gertrude or Agnes, and that’s all I’d be forever.”) Instead she and her husband Joe Hamilton, who had been the executive producer of The Garry Moore Show, decided that the best format for her talents was a variety show where she could create and play a wealth of characters.
The Carol Burnett Show hit the small screen in 1967—and instantly breathed new life into the prime-time variety show genre. As the first hour-long comedy-variety show to be hosted by a woman, the success of The Carol Burnett Show and its remarkable eleven-year run was unprecedented. With a wonderful cast, including Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, Vicki Lawrence, and Tim Conway; the brilliant costume designer Bob Mackie; Hamilton as the executive producer; and a team of talented writers, the show won twenty-four Emmy Awards. Each weekly installment featured elaborate musical numbers, movie spoofs, and a plethora of guest celebrities, while Burnett created a trunkful of memorable characters—to name but a few, the charwoman, the disgruntled middle-aged daughter Eunice, and Starlett O’Hara in Went With the Wind.
The show had an intense production schedule. A typical work week for Burnett would include a script meeting with the production staff on Monday, followed by rehearsals and script changes for that week’s show; a meeting to map out the following week’s show on Tuesday; a complete run-through of the current week’s show on Wednesday, followed by a tedious day of “camera blocking” with the show’s director, Dave Powers, on Thursday; and a fine-tuning rehearsal on Friday morning, with two tapings that evening—the first a dress rehearsal and the second a “final taping” for airing the following night.
During the first five years of the series, Burnett would get her script on Fridays for the following week and “then she’d breathe life into the comedy and into the characters, asking few, if any questions, about the show,” according to J. Randy Taraborrelli in his 1988 biography of Burnett, Laughing Till It Hurts. But then, as Burnett said in 1972, “I woke up one morning and thought, I haven’t the slightest idea of how the show is put together behind the scenes.” From then on, she became more of an active participant in the creative process—“speaking up and contributing thoughts and concepts” as sketches were being conceived and written, according to Taraborrelli—and ultimately going on to executive produce several specials (including the CBS ratings blockbuster The Carol Burnett Show: Show Stoppers—the fourth most-watched program of 2001).
In the midst of the series, Burnett discovered that her daughter Carrie, the oldest of three girls, had developed a drug problem. She and Hamilton ultimately decided a rehabilitation clinic was the only way to truly help her. After Carrie was fully recovered, Burnett and her daughter took their story public in the hopes of helping other drug abusers and their families.
The longevity of The Carol Burnett Show is not only a testament to Burnett’s talent to amuse but also to her warm, genuine personality. During the question-and-answer period that opened every show, viewers could witness Burnett’s sincerity as she answered—with wit and honesty—the most absurd questions from audience members. “The first time I ever forgot I was homely was the first time I heard an audience laugh,” she once said. In 1978 Burnett decided to end the show on a high note. She waited for CBS to renew the show for the next season, and then told the network her news. (The show was later syndicated in a half-hour format called Carol Burnett and Friends.)
In 1974 Burnett starred with Alan Alda in a television adaptation of the Broadway play 6 Rms Riv Vu, about two married people who meet while looking for a New York City apartment. In 1979, Carol made her dramatic debut as the mother of a soldier killed in Vietnam in a made-for-TV movie, Friendly Fire, a role for which she received excellent reviews. In 1990 she produced a new variety show, Carol & Company, which lasted two seasons on NBC; her repertory troupe of supporting players included such up-and-comers as Richard Kind, Jeremy Piven, and Peter Krause. Over the years Burnett has made many guest appearances on television programs, including All My Children, Mad About You (for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Emmy Award for her recurring role as Helen Hunt’s mother), and in 2006, Desperate Housewives. She also starred in several feature films (among them, A Wedding and The Four Seasons) and returned to her Broadway roots in 1995 in the comedy Moon Over Buffalo and in 1999 in the Sondheim revue Putting It Together, a production that began at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
In April 2002, the play Hollywood Arms, directed by Harold Prince, premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. The idea for the play was conceived by Burnett’s daughter Carrie, who died of cancer a few months before opening night. Carrie and Carol cowrote the script based on Burnett’s 1986 best-selling memoir about her unusual childhood, One More Time. Hollywood Arms opened on Broadway in October 2002 to many excellent reviews. To honor the memory of her daughter, Burnett created the Carrie Hamilton Foundation, where fundraising is currently underway to establish the Carrie Hamilton Theater (at the Pasadena Playhouse in California) to support the works of young theater artists and create an outreach theater program for at-risk children.
Carol Burnett, who first gained fame playing the daffy princess in Once Upon a Mattress, executive produced and played the imperious, hilarious Queen Aggravain in a new television adaptation of the show for ABC (with Tracey Ullman as Princess Winnifred) that aired in December 2005. Her comedic prowess and generous spirit have brought her worldwide fame and accolades—in recent years she has been awarded both the Kennedy Center Honors (2003) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005). Yet somehow she has managed to remain the hopeful, big-hearted, inherently funny and vibrantly youthful woman who arrived at New York’s Rehearsal Club in 1954, determined to find her niche in the entertainment world. She once said of her career, with typical candor, “I just believed. My success was almost a given where I was concerned.”
Carrie Hamilton was an American actress, singer, and playwright. She was the daughter of comedienne/actress Carol Burnett and the late producer Joe Hamilton. Hamilton worked in a number of productions for stage, film, video, and television. She took the role of Reggie Higgins in the TV version of the musical Fame for the fifth and sixth seasons (1985-1987), and portrayed the role of Maureen Johnson in the first national tour of the stage musical Rent to considerable acclaim. She also studied music and acting at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
One of her films was Tokyo Pop (1988), in which she played an American singer who journeys to Japan. There she found a relationship with both a singer (played by Diamond Yukai aka Yutaka Tadokoro) and a band that made it into the Tokyo pop charts Top Ten. She performed several songs in the movie.
In 1992, she took a minor role in the movie Cool World, which starred Gabriel Byrne, Kim Basinger and Brad Pitt. Hamilton occasionally appeared with her mother on film. In 1987 Carol Burnett guest starred in an episode of Fame entitled "Reggie and Rose". They co-starred in a 1988 TV movie titled Hostage. Nine years later, mother and daughter also starred on an episode of Touched By An Angel entitled "The Comeback". Hamilton played an aspiring Broadway star whose mother (Burnett) had also made a run for Broadway fame but failed (thanks to a dirty trick on the part of her conniving best friend, played by Rita Moreno).
In 1999, she starred in a popular sixth season episode of the X-Files, entitled "Monday". She played the role of Pam, the girlfriend of a would-be bank robber who is forced to relive the same day over and over.
She was the inspiration for the 1983 hit single "Carrie's Gone" (#81, Billboard), written by former boyfriend Fergie Frederiksen and recorded by his band, Le Roux. She also dated American singer/songwriter Ryan Adams in the late 90's, he was hit hard by her death and many of his songs are also written about and/or dedicated to Carrie, including much of his albums Demolition and Love is Hell.
It was Hamilton who suggested to her mother that they collaborate to turn Burnett’s memoir, One More Time, into a stage play. Together mother and daughter turned the first half of the memoir, Burnett’s childhood, into the play Hollywood Arms. Unfortunately, Hamilton died from lung and brain cancer before the show opened in Chicago.