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Carol Burnett

television variety show star

Carol Burnett

Carol Creighton Burnett was born in San Antonio, Texas, on April 26, 1933. Her father, Joseph, and mother, Ina Louise, were both acute alcoholics, and the family lived most of the time on welfare. Burnett was raised primarily by her maternal 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, California.

Shy and introspective throughout her childhood, Carol broke out of her shell at Hollywood High School, where she was known as the class cut-up. After graduating in 1951, Burnett got a scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles. Originally a journalism major, she switched to theater before quitting in 1954 and moving to New York City with her boyfriend, Don Saroyan, in hopes of breaking into acting.

Burnett began her entertainment career by performing a novelty song called "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles" in a nightclub act (Dulles was then the Secretary of State). That act led to night-time variety show appearances with Jack Paar and Ed Sullivan, which in turn led to her being cast as the foil to a ventriloquist's dummy on The Paul Winchell Show (1955), and then as Buddy Hackett's gawky girlfriend on the short-lived sitcom Stanley (1956). Her performance as Princess Winnifred in the 1959 production of Once Upon a Mattress earned her a Tony nomination. That same year, she became a regular part of the repertoiry cast on The Garry Moore Show, and it was for this show that she developed many of her most notable characters, including her "charwoman." In 1962, she and Julie Andrews appeared in the Emmy-winning special "Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall." She made her film debut in 1964, opposite Elizabeth Montgomery and Dean Martin in the light comedy Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?

Carol Burnett as a charwoman

In 1967, CBS was eager to have Burnett in a series so they offered her a choice. She could either star in a situation comedy or she could headline a variety series. Burnett chose the latter option, and The Carol Burnett Show debuted on September 11, 1967, with an ensemble cast that included Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and Vicki Lawrence. 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 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. She ended each show by tugging on her left ear, which was a message to her grandmother, letting her know that she was doing well and that she loved her; she continued this tradition after her grandmother's death, and it remains one of her trademarks to this day. By the time it ended in 1978, The Carol Burnett Show had garnered 23 Emmy Awards.

After The Carol Burnett Show ended its run, Burnett tried her hand in a variety of non-comedy roles, most notably in the television movie Friendly Fire, in which she played the mother of a soldier who was killed by "friendly fire" in Vietnam. Her film work from this time includes The Four Seasons (1981), Annie (1982), and Noises Off (1992). She also made occasional returns to the stage in the 1970's and 1980's, and also had guest roles on a number of television series. Although her appearances have become less frequent over the years, she continues to make guest appearances in television series, and in recent years has been appearing at theaters across the country. Each performance is an unscripted event with Burnett forming a dialogue with the audience.

In 1981, she successfully sued the National Enquirer for libel, prompted by its article describing her alleged public drunkenness during an altercation with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger while in a Washington restaurant. The case remains a landmark in the study of libel cases involving celebrities, even though the unprecedented $1.6 million verdict (including $300,000 in personal damages and $1.3 million in punitive damages) was later reduced on appeal and the case was eventually settled out of court. Burnett donated the money to charity. She said she pursued the lawsuit because, as the daughter of two deceased alcoholics, the gossip paper's fabrication wounded her emotionally and that they should be punished for their irresponsibility when writing lies about celebrities.

In addition to her numerous Emmy and Tony nominations and 6 Emmy wins, Burnett has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1975), induction into the Television Hall of Fame (1985), Kennedy Center Honors (2003), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005). Her autobiography One More Time was published in 1986.

Burnett has been married three times:
Don Saroyan -- December 15, 1955 to September 25, 1962 (divorce)
Joe Hamilton -- May 4, 1963 to May 11, 1984 (divorce) -- 3 daughters (Carrie, Jody, Erin)
Brian Miller -- November 24, 2001 to present


All Things Carol Burnett
Biography Channel
Internet Movie DataBase

See Also

Hollywood, California
John Foster Dulles
Lyle Waggoner

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The Robinson Library >> Dramatic Arts >> Biography: United States

This page was last updated on 02/02/2019.