Sunday, April 28, 2013

Happy 80th Birthday, Carol Burnett

This spring, I had the immense honor of getting to interview Carol Burnett about her new book Carrie and Me:  A Mother Daughter Love Story (released April 9 by Simon & Schuster), about the box set of The Carol Burnett Show released last fall by Time Inc., about her life and career, and about her love for her daughter Carrie Hamilton, a talent in her own right who passed away far too young at age 38.

This weekend, as the TV legend and comedy icon celebrates her 80th birthday, let's all look back at the times we had together.


A Legend’s Love Story
In a New Memoir, Carol Burnett Pays Tribute to a Talented Daughter

Carol Burnett and daughter Carrie Hamilton
For eleven seasons, Carol Burnett brought the audience for her eponymous variety show some of television’s biggest, longest laughs.  Now, via both her latest autobiographical volume and a deluxe Carol Burnett Show DVD box set, the beloved comedienne is bringing us back to her show’s 1970s heyday, to relive her on-screen highs as well as to reveal her poignant struggles behind-the-scenes.

The Carol Burnett Show debuted in 1967, the almost accidental result of a little-noticed clause in Burnett’s contract for The Garry Moore Show wherein CBS promised the musical comedy actress her own program.  From such inauspicious beginnings, Burnett and her talented ensemble cast of Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner soon became a hit, averaging 30 million viewers per week and ultimately winning 25 Emmy Awards.

Now, even though The Carol Burnett Show has been off the air for more than a generation, as Burnett explains, she still gets mail “from teenagers – even 11-year-olds – who write me because they’ve seen individual sketches on YouTube.  They’re the sweetest letters, saying ‘We heard about this show from our parents’ or ‘our grandparents.  We wish we could have been there at the beginning.’”


The Best of The Carol Burnett Show

That’s why, adds this recipient of twelve People’s Choice awards, eight Golden Globes, six Emmys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center honors, she’s so happy about her latest prize:  last fall’s release of a Carol Burnett Show DVD box set, titled “Carol’s Favorites” (16-episode set $59.95 or 25-episode set $99.95 in stores; 50-episode deluxe edition, including showcase collector’s box and exclusive memory book $199.95, only at timelife.com).  Now, Burnett explains, fans old and new can experience the show’s laughs in context, within episodes hand-selected by the star and presented in their entirety for the first time since their original broadcast. 

Both box sets sport bonus features, such as a reunion roundtable of the show’s old gang where, Burnett explains, “we all ended up telling stories that even the others had never heard before.”  That’s an achievement, because as the 80-year-old actress notes, “I have a good memory for the show.”  Burnett remembers well the sketches and musical numbers that had America cracking up at home – and, famously, had some of the show’s cast members cracking up on screen.  And so, picking the episodes for DVD from among eleven seasons was easy, she adds.  “But I want you to know, I don’t sit around like Norma Desmond.”

Maybe not, but Burnett did famously portray “Nora” Desmond, a similarly faded and self-obsessed silent-screen star in one of the show’s popular movie parodies.  Then there was Mrs. Wiggins, the blonde bimbo secretary obliviously chomping her gum.  And who could forget Eunice – she’s so starved for attention, she’d never let you get away with it – in the frequently recurring series of “Family” sketches that ultimately was spun off into its own series (although sans Burnett), Mama’s Family.

But it was in the actress’s spoof of another iconic big-screen heroine, this time called “Starlet” O’Hara, where The Carol Burnett Show hit its brilliant peak, and made television history.  As Burnett descended down a grand, Tara-esque staircase, in a gown the show’s costume designer Bob Mackie deliberately made to look clumsily thrown together from fringed velvet curtains, complete with curtain rod across the shoulders, “the audience saw the dress for the first time, and they were screaming,” the actress remembers.   The resulting bout of laughter, reportedly ten-minutes long, is one of the longest ever recorded on television, and the dress that incited it resides in the Smithsonian.  Even Burnett herself nearly broke down.  “To keep from laughing myself, I had to walk down the stairs while biting the inside of my cheek,” she remembers.


Breaking Up Is Hard Not To Do

Carol may have kept it together in “Went With the Wind,” but her entire ensemble was already infamous for not being able to keep a straight face; in one famous sketch, poor Korman was unable to stop shaking with laughter as Conway, as a dentist, improv’d a hilarious slapstick routine with a novocaine needle.  “We never did it on purpose,” Burnett insists about “breaking” on screen.  Instead, trained in live television on shows like Garry Moore and earlier, The Paul Winchell Show, Burnett wanted to preserve a spontaneous feel.  “I wanted people to see that we’re in the sandbox and we’re having fun.  We’re playing,” she explains.  “I didn’t want to stop and re-do the scenes, so I said just let it go.  Let the audience know this is happening, and it’s truthful.  And the audience appreciated that.”

In another throwback to her days working with Moore, who performed a stand-up routine to warm up his own live audience, Burnett also reluctantly committed to interacting with the crowd – but this time, on camera.  “My executive producer, Bob Banner, also produced Garry’s show.  He pointed out, ‘Carol, you’re going to be in funny outfits, with your teeth blacked out, fat suits, and wigs.  I think it’s important for the audience to get to know you first,’” Burnett remembers.  “And after the first two or three shows, the audience came prepared with some really wonderful questions, so I started to enjoy it.”

Burnett would ultimately pepper many personal touches into these interactive “Let’s Bump Up the Lights” segments throughout the eleven years.  She would perform her trademark Tarzan yell – which she’d developed as a kid, forced to portray Tarzan opposite a beautiful cousin who insisted on being Jane -- on command.  She continued to tug her ear – a on-air gesture she’d originally used in her Garry Moore days to signal the OK to her grandmother at home – and close with her signature song, “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” written by her then-husband, and the show’s executive producer, Joe Hamilton.


A Mother-Daughter Love Story

But as Burnett writes in her new book, Carrie and Me:  A Mother-Daughter Love Story, ($24, in stores April 9), even with this outlet for such personal expression, she decided in 1978 to end her series, in part to spend more time at home with Hamilton and their three young daughters.  The book, Burnett’s third, portrays the actress’ relationship with her eldest, Carrie Hamilton, who in her early teens developed an addiction to drugs.

Carrie’s illness and setbacks on the road to recovery preoccupied Burnett during her early post-variety show career, on the sets of such films as The Four Seasons and the 1982 big-screen Annie.  As Burnett writes, it took a while to accept a tough lesson about forcing your child to deal with her addiction:  “You have to love them enough to let them hate you.”  But by 18, Carrie had successfully completed rehab, and began a career in which it was clear she had inherited many of her mother’s talents.

“When she was 25, Carrie made a movie in Japan, Tokyo Pop, that has become a cult film.  She got sensational reviews – but then she wanted to do other things,” Burnett explains.  Eventually moving to Colorado, Carrie pursued a multi-faceted career as a singer, composer and writer, and began work on a screenplay called “Sunrise in Memphis,” meant to be the story of a bohemian girl’s journey to Graceland.

As Burnett chronicles in Carrie and Me, her daughter took the Graceland trip as research, crossing through Burnett’s own birthplace of San Antonio, Texas, and digging further back into the family’s roots in the town of Belleville, Arkansas.  But unfortunately, Carrie never got to finish that screenplay; she was soon diagnosed with cancer, which would ultimately take her life at just age 38.

The mother and daughter team had first collaborated on the play Hollywood Arms, based on Burnett’s book One More Time; the play ultimately opened in April of 2002, just months after Carrie’s death.  Then, during her last days in the hospital, Carrie asked her mother to fill in the missing middle portion of “Sunrise in Memphis,” but “not having taken that journey myself, I didn’t know where she wanted the characters to go.  They were hers to write,” Burnett explains.

But now, with Carrie and Me, Burnett is fulfilling her promise, finally bringing her daughter’s screenplay to life by publishing it just as it is.  “I felt Carrie on my shoulder the whole time I was writing the book,” Burnett explains.  “I loved doing it because it brought her back to me.”

“The thing about Carrie was, she never met a stranger,” Burnett explains.  “She loved people, and was a great listener.  And where I’m a very conservative dresser, she had hair that was never the same color from week to week, and a collection of boas she’d wear.  She was quite the character, and I hope readers will get the essence of just what a special person she was.”

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