Carol Burnett reflects on her most iconic roles
Carol Burnett’s role call
CBS’ “The Carol Burnett Show 50th Anniversary Special” – Arrivals
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Carol Burnett is a definition of a living legend. With dozens of honors, including Grammy and Tony awards, as well as the Golden Globes inaugural television achievement award, which now bears her name. Burnett is celebrating her 90th birthday this year, and NBC threw her a bash for viewers at home to enjoy, Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter Love, which airs on NBC on April 26. Burnett took EW for a walk down memory lane, revisiting some of her most iconic roles from her six decades in Hollywood that make up her phenomenal body of work. Click through for more.
Once Upon a Mattress (1959, ’64, ’72, 2005)
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Burnett made her Broadway debut in this Princess and the Pea-inspired musical comedy, earning a Tony nomination for her work. She reprised the role of Princess Winnifred on TV twice (in black and white in 1964, and in color in ’72) and returned to the show as the evil queen for a 2005 TV special. Burnett jumped at the chance to join the show because it had always been her dream to work with musical theatre director George Abbott. The original production was enjoying an Off Broadway run when Burnett got the idea to have the cast jokingly picket the theater after the show, demanding a transfer to Broadway. Her plot worked and the show eventually jumped to multiple Broadway houses over the course of a year. “Neil Simon made a crack about it,” says Burnett, 85. “He said, ‘Have you seen Once Upon a Mattress yet? Don’t worry, it will soon be at your neighborhood theater.'” Burnett got the The Garry Moore show from her performance and for awhile was doing double duty taping live television and performing eight shows a week on Broadway.
Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall (1962)
Burnett and Julie Andrews became close friends — and collaborators — early in their careers, and decided they should do a TV special. (CBS initially balked, concerned that Andrews was known only to New York theater audiences.) The two proved their potential as a pair when Andrews guest starred on The Garry Moore Show and they duetted on “Big D” from The Most Happy Fella. “After we finished the number, the television studio audience stood up and gave us a standing ovation, which was unheard of,” remembers Burnett. And so the special was born with breakout comedy writer Mike Nichols and Garry Moore writer Ken Welch. “We did a takeoff on Sound of Music before Julie was even cast in it,” says Burnett. “We loaded in the night before and just rehearsed it that day, and then the audience came in. It went through the roof.”
The Lucy Show (1966)
THE LUCY SHOW, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Mary Jane Croft, 1962-1968, 1966 episode
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Burnett and Lucille Ball had a long relationship throughout her career and the two met early in the Broadway run of Once Upon a Mattress. “It was the second night of the show. I was more nervous knowing she was in the audience than I was opening night,” remembers Burnett. That night Ball told Burnett to give her a call if she ever needed anything, which led to Ball guest starring on Burnett’s CBS special Carol Plus Two with Zero Mostel a few years later. Burnett returned the favor and appeared on Ball’s The Lucy Show multiple times, the two friends regularly appearing together in each other’s work. Ball also sent Burnett flowers on her birthday every year with a note that read “Hey kid, Happy Birthday. Love, Lucy” — a tradition that continued until the day Ball died. “The morning of my birthday, I turned on the television and she had died. And I got flowers that afternoon. She died on my birthday,” Burnett says.
The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78)
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Burnett redefined sketch comedy with her variety show, which won 25 Emmys during its 11-season run. The star credits costume designer Bob Mackie with helping her define her many roles, noting that he sometimes designed 65 costumes a week for the show. His ideas ranged from the iconic curtain rod of the Scarlett O’Hara sketch to giving Burnett a baggy skirt that lent Mrs. Wiggins her signature walk and the key to her entire character. Burnett also credits the show’s long-running success to the repetory company approach of the cast and the ensemble’s natural chemistry. The series’ movie parodies, like the Gone With the Wind skit, became fan favorites. Burnett recalls that the show’s parody of Mildred Pierce caught the eye of the classic film’s star, Joan Crawford. “She called me and said, ‘You gave that sketch more f—ing production than Jack Warner gave me,'” says Burnett. “She loved it.”
ANNIE, Aileen Quinn, Carol Burnett, 1982, (c) Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection
Credit: Everett Collection
Burnett remembers turning to director John Huston for guidance on playing Miss Hannigan in the big-screen adaptation of this beloved musical. “He said, ‘Just cavort, dear. Just cavort,'” she recalls. “I go, ‘Okay, I’ll cavort. I’ll cavort away.'” It was Burnett’s decision to make Hannigan a drinker, and she pushed for the addition of a scene between her character and Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney). The musical’s songwriters declined to write a song for the duo, so Burnett called in Carol Burnett Show music-material writer Arthur Malvin. “He wrote a song called ‘Sign,’ and it’s very funny,” she says. “I just felt that would be something the audience would get a kick out of seeing.”
Mad About You (1996-99)
Mad About You
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Burnett guest-starred on the hit sitcom several times as the mom of Jamie (Helen Hunt). “They were both consummate comedic actors,” Burnett says of Hunt and costar Paul Reiser. “I really love it when a show is funny because it’s character-driven as opposed to setup, setup, joke, laugh track. And that was all character-driven.”
Credit: Eddy Chen/FOX
The actress added another famous maternal guest-star role to her résumé when she signed on to play the Nazi-hunting absent mother of Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester. “I became a Gleek when it first came on,” explains Burnett. “And at one point, I just mentioned to somebody, ‘I’d carry a spear on that show,’ because I really had such fun watching it.”
A Little Help With Carol Burnett (2018)
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Burnett hosts this unscripted series, which features a panel of 4- to 8-year-olds working to solve dilemmas presented to them by adults, including celebrity guests like Lisa Kudrow. “That’s the best age because they don’t censor themselves,” Burnett notes of her young costars. “It was just as easy as pie to do. I don’t have to run around, rehearse, worry about lines, or anything. You roll with it,” she says. “Some of the kids are priceless. They are the stars of the show, I’m just kind of steering them around.”
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