BURNETT, CAROL (1933– ) Actress, Singer
Best loved for her long-running variety series, Carol Burnett is a remarkably versatile performer, accomplished in comedy, drama, and musical theater. She was born on April 16, 1933, in San Antonio, Texas, where her alcoholic parents left her in the care of her maternal grandmother. While still in grade school, Carol moved with her grandmother to Los Angeles, where they lived in a one-room apartment with Carol’s mother, relying on welfare payments to make ends meet. Carol often escaped from her desperate home life by going to the movies, often five or six times a week. After graduating from Hollywood High School, Burnett received a scholarship to the University of Southern California. She intended to study journalism but was soon drawn to the theater department. At a school-sponsored workshop, she and fellow student Don Saroyan performed a musical number from Annie Get Your Gun. An audience member was so impressed he offered to loan the team $1,000 each so that they could move to New York to break into Broadway theater. On December 17, 1955, Burnett married Saroyan in New York. On the same day, she made her television debut on The Winchell-Mahoney Show, a national children’s program on which she played the girlfriend of a ventriloquist’s dummy. As a secret “hello” to her grandmother, Burnett tugged on her earlobe during the program. The gesture became her trademark.
After appearing in Stanley, a failed situation comedy with Buddy Hackett, Burnett began making guest appearances on The Garry Moore Show (1958–67). At the same time, she was making a name for herself on the New York nightclub scene, singing “I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles.” She was invited to perform the novelty song on The Tonight Show and Toast of the Town. In 1959 Burnett also won acclaim on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress, a musical based on the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” In 1962, Burnett won an Emmy for her work on The Garry Moore Show. The same year, she signed a 10-year contract with CBS. While her career was thriving, her marriage was suffering. She divorced Saroyan and in 1963 married Joe Hamilton, the producer of Garry Moore. Burnett and Hamilton would have three daughters.
With Hamilton as the producer, Burnett began starring in her own television variety series, The Carol Burnett Show, in 1967. The format proved a perfect venue for showcasing her comic and musical talents. Building a warm rapport with viewers, Burnett began each show by answering questions from the audience. The rest of the program featured musical numbers and comedy sketches performed with guest stars and a company of supporting players that included Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. Among the most memorable sketches were elaborate spoofs of classic films such as Gone With the Wind (1939) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). After an 11-year run, Burnett opted to end the series. She explained, “My view is leave before they ask you to.” Burnett spent the late 1970s and 1980s performing in theatrical films and movies for television. Among her films were A Wedding (1978), The Four Seasons (1981), and Annie (1982). She also showed herself to be an adept dramatic actress in Friendly Fire (1979) and Hostage (1988), in which she starred with her daughter Carrie Hamilton.
In the 1980s, Burnett experienced a series of personal difficulties. She divorced Joe Hamilton in 1984 and was forced to deal with Carrie’s drug problems. Burnett also became involved in a landmark lawsuit after the National Enquirer published a story saying she had been seen drunk and unruly in a Washington, D.C. restaurant. Burnett won her slander suit and was eventually awarded $800,000, which she used to establish scholarships for the study of journalistic ethics. Burnett returned to both series television and the theater in the 1990s. She frequently guested on Mama’s Family (1983–90), a situation comedy based on characters in a series of sketches from her show. Burnett also starred in two variety programs, Carol & Company (1990) and The Carol Burnett Show (1991), but both were soon canceled. She found greater success onstage, appearing in Moon Over Buffalo (1995) and Putting It Together (1998), in which she performed songs written by Stephen Sondheim. Burnett, however, is still best remembered for her classic television series. In 2001, 30 episodes were collected into a videotape series introduced by Burnett, Korman, and Conway.
Burnett, Carol. One More Time. New York: Random House, 1986.
Newsmakers 2000. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2000.
Norwich, William. “Carol Burnett.” Interview. October 1994, pp. 174+.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Annie (1982). Columbia Tristar, VHS, 1997.
Let Me Entertain You: Carol Burnett Sings. Polygram Records, CD, 2000.