When I was little, Carol Burnett sometimes he would climb the iconic Hollywood sign, which back then still spelled Hollywoodland. “There was rickety scaffolding behind them,” Carol says of the giant letters, adding that the O’s were her favorite. “It was a miracle we didn’t break our necks.”
Undeniable, daring talent and incredible luck helped Carol, who turned 90 in April, become a showbiz legend, but her strength has also been sorely tested by tragedy and unimaginable personal loss. Carol says that she perseveres “just knowing that when you’re down, there’s always going to be a high. Life can change in a heartbeat, so be thankful for what you have today.”
The daughter of alcoholics, Carol and her half-sister, Chrissie, found fragile stability with their grandmother who raised them in a Los Angeles boarding house. Money was tight, but splurging an afternoon at the movies became a much-needed escape. “I think those movies may be what she did for me: an imprint on a young mind and a growing girl that anything is possible. You can be happy,” Carol says.
Steve Boettcherproducer of the recent film Carol Burnett: A Celebration, calls the comedian an inspiration. “I would go to the movies and just dream, like little kids do,” she says. “It’s so exciting that he’s accomplished so much and paved the way for so many.”
Something in Carol’s courage brought good luck. In 1951, an anonymous donor mailed her the $50 tuition she needed to attend UCLA. “I still don’t know who she was,” confesses Carol, who enrolled in an acting class en route to the playwright program. The day she laughed for the first time on stage she opened her eyes. “She had always been a quiet, shy and sad girl, and then everything changed,” she recalls.
Carol experienced a second lucky break a few years later. After performing at a party their junior year, an impressed guest offered Carol and her soon-to-be first husband an interest-free loan to help them travel to New York for auditions. “I’ve never seen so many zeros in my life,” she recalls.
Within a year, Carol had become a popular cabaret and nightclub performer, but her life couldn’t be enchanted forever. In 1957 she fulfilled her dream of appearing in ed sullivan and the tonight show, but then his mother passed away after years of alcohol abuse. “Nobody said life was fair,” Carol says. “Just eventful.”
She went on to break through playing Princess Winnifred off-Broadway in once upon a mattress. “I didn’t have a day off,” says Carol, who was simultaneously appearing on The Garry Moore Show. One night, while she was playing Winnifred, she fell asleep on stage. “I was gone for about 10 or 15 seconds,” she recalls. “The stage manager backstage was saying, ‘Carol, Carol, wake up!’
In the early 1970s, Carol seemed to have it all. She was the star of the most popular variety series on television, the wife of producer Joe Hamilton and the mother of three girls, Carrie, Jody and Erin. “(The network) didn’t expect us to last beyond the first season, but it got over 270 episodes in 11 years,” she says.
On the series, Carol enjoyed bringing characters like Eunice, Starlett O’Hara, and an over-the-top Queen Elizabeth to life. “Comedy is where she escapes,” says former co-star Vicki Lawrence, who praises Carol for being generous and supportive. “She would be the first person standing on the side of the stage leading the laugh.”
At the height of Carol’s success, a storm began when her teenage daughter Carrie began using alcohol and drugs. “It’s a way to numb the pain that comes with growing up,” said Carrie, who was involuntarily sent to rehab three times before sobering up after five tumultuous years.
The tension likely affected Carol’s marriage to Joe, as the couple divorced in 1984. Fortunately, Carol and her daughter became close before Carrie died of complications from lung cancer in 2002. Not with me,” Carol says.
At 90, the star has only slowed down a bit. she and her third husband brian miller they have stepped in to raise their 16-year-old grandson Dylan, the son of their youngest daughter, Erin. “Yesterday he texted me to say, ‘I love you so much,’” shares Carol, who says she stays alert by playing Wordle and doing crossword puzzles. The six-time Emmy winner is also still working. She will appear next in Royal Palm, a 10-part comedy coming soon to Apple TV+. Through the good times and the hard times, Carol learned to keep smiling. “Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen,” she says. “I would not change anything. I had a good race.”