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SAG Life Achievement Honoree Carol Burnett On Her Career and Giving Back

On Jan. 30, Carol Burnett will receive the SAG Life Achievement Award for her professional achievements and her humanitarianism. The legendary star of television, stage and film is acutely aware of the roots of both.

Show business held out an escape from the impoverished, chaotic, hotel room childhood she vividly depicted in bestselling memoir “One More Time,” and its stage adaptation “Hollywood Arms,” co-authored by her late daughter Carrie Hamilton.

The biz also allowed her to spread some sunshine around, though as she says, “not at first. We couldn’t give back because we had nothing to give. But once I started to make even mild salaries, I wanted to help other people, starting with members of my family and spreading out.”

Grandmother “Nanny” and Mama scorned young Carol’s pipe dream of attending college, let alone living the glamorous life of her beloved film stars. Yet the still-mysterious appearance of a $50 bill in her mailbox enabled her to attend UCLA where, fatefully, she took an acting class.

LADY IN RED: “The Carol Burnett Show” ran from 1967 to 1978 on CBS, winning 25 Emmy Awards.
Courtesy of CBS

“The teacher gave me a monologue from ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot,’ a maid or something, and it didn’t even occur to me to read the play. I got up there and pronounced it ‘Chay-litt.’ I was just terrible. She gave me a D, saying ‘I’m not going to give you an F because at least you memorized it.’”
Broad comedy proved more congenial, in Noel Coward’s “Red Peppers” (“I did a Cockney accent while pretending I was Betty Grable, and got an A”), and “Adelaide’s Lament” from “Guys and Dolls” (“I figured if I hit a clam, I could blame it on the fact that she has a cold”).

One night, she entered as a hillbilly in a student-written one-act. “I had one line, ‘Ah’m bah-yuck,’ really thick accent, you know? And it got a laugh. And I liked it. And that’s when the bug bit.”

A benefactor’s $1,000 loan — she calls him “Mr. C” — enabled her relocation to New York, where supperclub success with the satirical ballad “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles” led to the Off Broadway hit “Once Upon a Mattress,” and a coveted place in “The Garry Moore Show” ensemble.

“You have to have the fire in the belly, and I did,” Burnett says. “I thought, this is it, this is what I’m meant to do.”

Millions of fans would agree. Among SAG’s 53 previous life honorees, you’d be hard-pressed to find one more beloved. (Many of them, in fact, popped up as her TV show guests over 11 seasons.)

Her SAG peers are surely mindful of a film career with such notable highs as “A Wedding” (“Robert Altman made it a playground”), and the irascible Miss Hannigan in 1982’s “Annie,” where John Huston advised her to “cavort, dear. Just cavort.” She enjoyed a heavy, Emmy-nominated turn as a bereaved mom in 1979’s “Friendly Fire,” having been loosened up during bigscreen dramedy “Pete’n’Tillie” when co-star Walter Matthau deliberately goaded her at lunch.

“You have to have the fire in the belly, and
I did. I thought, this is it, this is what I’m meant to do.”
Carol Burnett

“Why do you do all that television crap?,” he bellowed. Confirming his own dim view of many features he cranked out every year, she countered, “Look at it this way, Walter. It takes you 10 or 12 weeks to make a piece of crap, and it takes me just five days.” (He howled, and they became fast friends.)

That “crap,” of course, is her enduring legacy. “The Carol Burnett Show” was a Saturday night staple for over a decade, cited in these pages as one of the “25 Shows That Changed Television,” with kudos to her “generosity as a comic ringmaster.”

Sid Caesar, who knew something about running a comedy circus, summed it up for Variety shortly before his death: “Carol? Wonderful. The greatest.”

She gives credit for greatness to her weekly extravaganza’s team: producer and then-husband Joe Hamilton; world-class writers and lyricists Kenny Solms and Gail Parent; the unforgettable on-camera talents of Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway.

But it’s Burnett’s versatility everyone remembers: her ability to play any age and any class, and the combination of heart and wit she brought to every role. “At first I wanted to be a clown,” she says, “but as we went along we started to develop a little edge.” One “Mama’s Family” sketch featured guest Maggie Smith as the teacher of Bubba (the son), a classroom bully.

“Someone during rehearsal said, ‘Let’s just do this like real people, without the accents or going over the top. As an acting exercise, let’s do it like a one-act.’ Well. It was devastating. Not one laugh, titter, or giggle when we did it totally straight. And then when we went back to doing the Family as we always did…” She pauses. “It was funny.”

FUNNY GIRL: Appearing on “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1978, in “Friendly Fire” in 1979 and in “Annie” in 1982.
Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

She continues to pop up on series like “Hawaii 5-0,” and will put out a third book of memoirs, “In the Sandbox,” this November. She also has multiple occasions to indulge her passion for causes.

“Girls Inc.,” she notes, “teaches young girls that they can achieve a lot, that it’s not just a man’s world, although it’s much better now than when I started out. The Teddy Bear Foundation helps families with children with cancer, coping with the high costs of hospitals and medicine.” A lifetime director of the Hereditary Disease Foundation, she’s put her Q&A stage show “Laughter & Reflection” to the aid of these and other organizations.

“One of Mr. C’s stipulations” in granting her that $1,000 loan, she recalls, “was, if you are successful you must help out others. It’s like the ‘magnificent obsession.’ You have to pay it forward.”

It’s all a departing visitor can do not to blurt out “I’m so glad we had this time together,” and ask for the ear-tug she invented as a TV message to Nanny. (“It meant ‘Hello, I love you, I’m fine.’ Later it meant ‘I love you, I’m fine, the check’s on the way.’”) In person, she’s that dear.

Her desired epitaph? “She cheered us up.”

Boy, did she ever.

Tipsheet
What:
22nd Annual SAG Awards
When:
8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT Jan. 30
Where:
Shrine Auditorium
web:
sagawards.com

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