Carol Creighton Burnett
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About Carol Creighton Burnett
Carol Creighton Burnett (born April 26, 1933) is an American actress, comedian, singer, dancer and writer. Burnett started her career in New York. After becoming a hit on Broadway, she made her television debut. After successful appearances on The Garry Moore Show, Burnett moved to Los Angeles and began an eleven-year run on The Carol Burnett Show which was aired on CBS television from 1967 to 1978. With roots in vaudeville, The Carol Burnett Show was a variety show which combined comedy sketches, song, and dance. The comedy sketches included film parodies and character pieces. Burnett created many characters during the show's television run.
Burnett was born in San Antonio, Texas, the daughter of Ina Louise (née Creighton), a publicity writer for movie studios, and Joseph Thomas Burnett, a movie theater manager. Both of her parents suffered from alcoholism, and at a young age she was left with her grandmother, Mabel Eudora White. Her parents divorced in the late 1930s, and Burnett and her grandmother moved to an apartment near her mother’s in an impoverished area of Hollywood. There, they stayed in a boarding house with her younger half-sister Chrissy.
When Burnett was in the second and half grade, she briefly invented an imaginary twin sister named Karen, with Shirley Temple-like dimples. Motivated to further the pretense, 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."
For a while, she worked as an usherette at what is now the Hollywood Pacific Theatre (the forecourt of which is now the location of her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; see the section in the theatre's article for more information). After graduating from Hollywood High School in 1951, Burnett won a scholarship to UCLA, where she initially planned on studying journalism. During her first year of college, Burnett switched her focus to theater arts and English, with the goal of becoming a playwright. She found she had to take an acting course to enter the playwright program; "I wasn't really ready to do the acting thing, but I had no choice." She followed a sudden impulse in her first performance; "Don't ask me why, but when we were in front of the audience, I suddenly decided I was going to stretch out all my words and my first line came out 'I'm baaaaaaaack!" The audience response moved her deeply:
They laughed and it felt great. All of a sudden, after so much coldness and emptiness in my life, I knew the sensation of all that warmth wrapping around me. I had always been a quiet, shy, sad sort of girl and then everything changed for me. You spend the rest of your life hoping you'll hear a laugh that great again.
During this time, Burnett performed in several university productions, garnering recognition for her comedic and musical abilities. Her mother disapproved of her acting ambitions:
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.
The young Burnett, always insecure about her looks, described her reaction to her mother's advice of "You can always write, no matter what you look like", in her 1986 memoir One More Time: "God, that hurt!"
In 1954, during her junior year, a professor invited Burnett and some other students to perform at a black-tie party. A man and his wife approached her afterward, as she was putting cookies in her purse to take home to her grandmother. Instead of reprimanding her, the man complimented Burnett's performance and asked about her future plans. When he discovered that she wanted to go try her luck with musical comedy in New York, but did not have enough money, he offered her and her boyfriend Don Saroyan each a $1000 interest-free loan on the spot. The conditions were that it was to be paid back in five years, his name was never to be revealed, and if she became a success, she would help others attain their dreams. Burnett took him up on his offer. She and Saroyan left college and moved to New York to pursue acting careers. That same year, Burnett's father died of causes related to his alcoholism.
After spending her first year in New York working as a hat check girl and failing to land acting jobs, Burnett along with other girls living at The Rehearsal Club, a boarding house for women seriously pursuing an acting career, put on The Rehearsal Club Revue on March 3, 1955. They mailed invitations to agents, who showed up along with stars like Celeste Holm and Marlene Dietrich, and this opened doors for several of the girls. Burnett was cast in a minor role on The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show in 1955. She played the girlfriend of a ventriloquist’s dummy on the popular children’s program. This role led to her starring role opposite Buddy Hackett in the short-lived sitcom Stanley from 1956 to 1957.
After Stanley, Burnett found herself unemployed for a short time. She eventually bounced back a few months later as a highly popular performer on the New York circuit of cabarets and night clubs, most notably for a hit parody number called "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles" (Dulles was Secretary of State at the time). In 1957, Burnett performed this number on both The Tonight Show, hosted by Jack Paar, and The Ed Sullivan Show. Burnett also worked as a regular on one of television's earliest game shows, Pantomime Quiz, during this time. In 1957, just as Burnett was achieving her first small successes, her mother died.
Burnett's first true taste of success came with her appearance on Broadway in the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress. The same year, she became a regular player on The Garry Moore Show, a job that lasted until 1962. She won an Emmy that year for her "Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series" on the show. Burnett portrayed a number of characters, most memorably the put-upon cleaning woman who would later become her signature alter-ego. With her success on the Moore show, Burnett finally rose to headliner status and appeared in the 1962 special Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, co-starring her friend Julie Andrews. The show was produced by Bob Banner, directed by Joe Hamilton, and written by Mike Nichols and Ken Welch. Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Music. Burnett also guest-starred on a number of shows during this time, including The Twilight Zone episode "Cavender is Coming" and a recurring role as a tough female Marine in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.. Burnett became good friends with the latter show's star, Jim Nabors, who would later be her first guest every season on her variety show.
In 1963, 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 called "Here's Agnes", to be produced by Desilu Productions. 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, flowers arrived at Burnett's house with the note "Happy Birthday, Kid. Love, Lucy."
In 1964, Burnett was cast opposite Caterina Valente and Bob Newhart on the variety show The Entertainers which ran for only one season. She also starred in the Broadway musical Fade Out - Fade In but was forced to quit after sustaining a neck injury in a taxi accident. The show’s producers sued the actress for breach of contract, but the suit was later dropped.
The Carol Burnett Show
Main article: The Carol Burnett Show
The hour-long Carol Burnett Show, which debuted in 1967, garnered 23 Emmy Awards and won or was nominated for multiple Emmy Awards every season it was on the air. Its ensemble cast included Tim Conway (who was a guest player until the ninth season), Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and the teenaged Vicki Lawrence (who was cast partly because she looked like a younger 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. She chose to carry on the tradition of past variety show successes.
A true variety show, The Carol Burnett Show struck a chord with viewers. Among other things, it parodied films ("Went With the Wind" for Gone With the Wind), television ("As the Stomach Turns" for the soap opera As the World Turns) and commercials. Musical numbers were also a frequent feature. Burnett and her team struck gold with the original skit "The Family", which eventually was spun off into its own television show called Mama's Family, starring Vicki Lawrence.
Burnett opened most shows with an impromptu question and answer session with the audience, lasting a few minutes, during which she often demonstrated her ability to humorously ad lib. On numerous occasions, she obliged when asked to perform her trademark Tarzan yell.
Burnett ended each show by tugging her ear, which was a message to her grandmother who had raised her. This was done to let her know that she was doing well and that she loved her. During the show's run, Burnett's grandmother died. On an Intimate Portrait episode 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!" Burnett continued the tradition of tugging her ear.
The Carol Burnett Show ceased production in 1978, and is generally regarded as the last successful major network prime-time variety show. It continues to have success in syndicated reruns.
Burnett starred in a few films while her variety show was running, including Pete 'n' Tillie (1972). 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. She also returned to star in a different role as Queen Aggravain in the movie version of Once Upon a Mattress.
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! with Rock Hudson and eleven 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. She was also the first celebrity to appear on the children's series Sesame Street, on that series' first episode on November 10, 1969.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Burnett made several attempts at starting a new variety program. She also appeared briefly on The Carol Burnett Show's "The Family" sketches spinoff, Mama's Family, as her stormy character, Eunice Higgins. She played the matriarch in the cult comedy miniseries Fresno, which parodied the primetime soap opera Falcon Crest. She returned to TV in the mid-1990s as a supporting character on the sitcom Mad About You, playing Theresa Stemple, the mother of main character Jamie Buchman (Helen Hunt).
Burnett has long been a fan of the soap opera All My Children. She realized 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 causing trouble for her stepmother Phoebe Tyler-Wallingford (Ruth Warrick). She hosted a 25th anniversary special about the show in 1995 and made a brief cameo appearance as Verla Grubbs on the January 5, 2005, episode which celebrated the show's 35th anniversary. Burnett reprised her role as Grubbs in September 2011 as part of the series' finale.
In 2008, Burnett had her second role as an animated character, in Horton Hears a Who!. Her first was in The Trumpet of the Swan. In 2009, she made a guest appearance on the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, for which she was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. In November 2010, she guest starred on an episode of Glee as the mother of cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester.
Burnett 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."
The first house Burnett lived in was the Beverly Hills house formerly owned by Harry James and Betty Grable. Growing up in rented rooms, an actual house 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 Joe Hamilton later died of cancer (1991). On November 24, 2001, Burnett married Brian Miller (principal drummer in and contractor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra), who is twenty-three years her junior.
In January 2002, Carrie Hamilton died of lung and brain cancer at the age of 38. She had become addicted to drugs as a teenager. Burnett and Carrie wrote a play together called Hollywood Arms, which was adapted from Burnett's bestselling memoir, One More Time. The Broadway production featured Linda Lavin as Burnett's character's beloved grandmother, and Michele Pawk as the mother, Louise. Pawk went on to receive the 2003 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play.
Burnett drew attention in 1981 when she sued the tabloid newspaper National Enquirer for libel after the Enquirer described her alleged public drunkenness, purportedly with Henry Kissinger. Carol was particularly sensitive to the accusations because of her parents' own alcoholism. The case, Carol Burnett v. National Enquirer, Inc., 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. She donated a portion of that award to the University of Hawaii and University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, 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 "cab fare", 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 cleaning lady character "charwoman" in an episode of Family Guy. On May 26, 2007, the lawsuit was dismissed by a Los Angeles federal judge. The judge used Hustler Magazine v. Falwell as the general basis for the decision.
Awards and recognition