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If you like Carol Burnett's story, you might also like:
Julie Andrews,
Olivia de Havilland,
Nora Ephron,
Sally Field,
Whoopi Goldberg,
Audra McDonald,
Harold Prince,
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and Hilary Swank

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Carol Burnett
Carol Burnett
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Carol Burnett Biography

Television Hall of Fame

Carol Burnett Date of birth: April 26, 1933

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  Carol Burnett

Carol Burnett was born in San Antonio, Texas but spent most of her early years living with her grandmother in Los Angeles. Her parents divorced when she was young, and both her mother and father fell prey to alcoholism. Times were hard, and Carol and her grandmother lived in a small studio apartment in Hollywood. By her own account, it was a life with few luxuries, but her grandmother took her to the movies every week, and young Carol absorbed a wealth of characters and situations she would later mine for comic gold.

Carol Burnett Biography Photo
Carol did well in her studies at Hollywood High School. She planned to fulfill a thwarted dream of her mother's and become a journalist. Although the University of California system offered extremely low tuition to in-state students, Carol could not afford to enroll at UCLA until an anonymous donor supplied her with the $50 she needed.

In a college theater arts class, she discovered the joys of performing for a live audience. She excelled in college musical and variety performances and learned that she loved making an audience laugh more than any work she had ever tried. She imagined herself on the Broadway stage, in a musical directed by the master showman George Abbott. In her sophomore year, a successful businessman who had seen her perform at a party offered her an interest-free loan to try her luck in New York; when the school year ended, she crossed the country in pursuit of her dream.

In New York, Carol lived at the Rehearsal Club, a boarding house for single actresses. Soliciting material from undiscovered writers and composers, she staged a revue with her roommates and began to make a name for herself in the theater world. For two summers, she worked at the mountain resorts that had long served as a proving ground for young talent. The routine at these vacation spots, Green Mountains in the Adirondacks and Tamiment in the Poconos, was a grueling one, but excellent training for a performer. Carol Burnett's powerful singing voice, warm personality and undeniable comic talent attracted the attention of the writers and composers who supplied the resorts with material.

Carol Burnett Biography Photo
In the 1950s, New York was still the center of live television, and Carol Burnett began appearing on comedy and variety programs as well as in nightclubs. In the song "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," she sang the charms of President Eisenhower's mature and distinctly unromantic Secretary of State. The number was a hit with audiences, and she was invited to perform it on both The Jack Paar Show and The Ed Sullivan Show.

In 1959, she was cast in the new musical Once Upon a Mattress. Originally developed at Tamiment, the show was a broad comic take on the fairy tale of "The Princess and the Pea," and Burnett dominated the show as the gauche but warm-hearted Princess Winifred. The director was the famed George Abbott, nicknamed "the apprentice's sorcerer" for his unparalleled track record of launching new talent. Although the show opened in a small theater off-Broadway, it was a hit with audiences and soon transferred to a Broadway house. Burnett received a large share of the credit for the show's success, and while it was still running on Broadway she began the first of four seasons on The Garry Moore Show, a popular evening comedy and variety program. Burnett won her first Emmy Award for her work on the show.

Carol Burnett Biography Photo
At this time, she met and became friends with another rising Broadway star, Julie Andrews. Their contrasting personalities -- the reserved and elegant Englishwoman and the brash and informal American -- made for a winning combination on stage. A 1962 concert performance, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, was broadcast live on the CBS network in prime time and won two Emmy Awards, one as the year's best music program and another for Burnett's performance. The director of Julie and Carol was her producer from The Garry Moore Show, Joe Hamilton. Their working relationship led to a romance outside of the television studio and they were married in 1963.

Following the success of Julie and Carol, CBS signed Burnett to a ten-year contract, for one special and two guest appearances per year. She made guest appearances on comedy and variety programs such as Get Smart, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Gomer Pyle and The Lucy Show, and starred in television productions of Once Upon a Mattress and Calamity Jane. A return to Broadway, as the leading lady of the new musical Fade Out, Fade In, led to disappointment when a cab she was taking to the theater was involved in an accident. Burnett recovered from a neck injury but was unable to perform while she was recuperating. The box office suffered in her absence, and though she returned to the show, she soon left again to accept the offer of a regular television series. The Entertainers, a variety show teaming Burnett with comedian Bob Newhart, failed to draw a large audience and was cancelled after a single season.

Carol Burnett Biography Photo
With a growing family to support and a new house to maintain, Burnett and Hamilton decided to exercise an overlooked clause in her contract, and held the network to its commitment to produce and broadcast 30 one-hour variety shows with her. At first, CBS executives balked at allowing her to host the program, believing that only male stars could successfully host variety programs, but Burnett stood her ground, and the first episode of The Carol Burnett Show was broadcast on September 11, 1967.

The show featured a full orchestra, dancers, and a regular cast of supporting comedians, including Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, and later Tim Conway. Guest stars included contemporary popular entertainers, as well as many of the Hollywood stars Burnett had admired since childhood. Many shows began with an unrehearsed question-and-answer session between Burnett and the studio audience. In addition to musical numbers featuring the star and her guests, the show typically included skits parodying contemporary soap operas and old movies like those a younger Carol had enjoyed with her grandmother. Other segments portrayed a host of recurring characters, including a distinctly dysfunctional family dominated by a savagely critical mother.

Carol Burnett Biography Photo
The Carol Burnett Show ran for 11 seasons, received 25 Emmy Awards, and was watched by an average of 30 million people every week. In the mid-'70s, it was the cleanup hitter for CBS's unrivaled Saturday night lineup of All in the Family, Mash, and the Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart shows. In 1972, '74 and '75, the program won the Emmy Award as the year's best variety show. Carol Burnett herself received five Golden Globe Awards as the best actress in television comedy for her work on the show. In later seasons, ratings dipped, and the network experimented with different time slots as original cast members left and were replaced. In 1978, CBS was willing to extend the program for another season, but Burnett decided to end the series after the 11th season.

During the run of The Carol Burnett Show, she had appeared in two feature films, starring opposite Walter Matthau in the 1972 comedy-drama Pete 'n' Tillie, and in Billy Wilder's 1974 remake of the classic newspaper comedy The Front Page. With the end of her weekly television series, Burnett was free to appear in more feature films, including The Four Seasons (1981) and as the villainous Miss Hannigan in John Huston's film version of the Broadway musical Annie (1982).

Carol Burnett Biography Photo
Burnett won critical acclaim for her dramatic performances in the television films Friendly Fire (1979) and Life of the Party: The Story of Beatrice (1982). In the 1980s, she appeared regularly on the comedy series Mama's Family, a spinoff of the family sketches on her variety show, and starred in the comedy miniseries Fresno. In 1984, Burnett's 20-year marriage to Joe Hamilton ended in divorce. She remained active in television while spending much of her time writing. Her 1986 memoir One More Time became a national bestseller. In the following decade, she won another Emmy Award for her recurring role in the comedy Mad About You. She returned to Broadway in 1995, starring in the comedy Moon Over Buffalo, and again in the 1998 revival of Putting It Together, a revue of songs by Stephen Sondheim.

Carol Burnett Biography Photo
In 2001, Burnett married musician Brian Miller. She remained devoted to her three daughters from her previous marriage and enjoyed a particularly close relationship with her oldest daughter, Carrie Hamilton, who shared her interests in acting and writing. The two collaborated on a play, Hollywood Arms, based on Burnett's childhood. Carrie Hamilton died of cancer in 2002, four month before the play's opening in Chicago, a devastating loss for her mother. The Chicago production, directed by Harold Prince, was well received and soon transferred to Broadway. The bittersweet success of Hollywood Arms was followed by one of the greatest honors of Carol Burnett's distinguished career. In 2005, President George W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Carol Burnett has continued writing as well as performing. In 2012, she published a second volume of memoirs, This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection. She paid tribute to her daughter in the 2013 book Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story. That same year, Carol Burnett received the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for Humor. In 2013, the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard near her alma mater, Hollywood High School, was designated by the City of Los Angeles as Carol Burnett Square.

This page last revised on Apr 11, 2016 01:37 EDT
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