November 09, 2017
Hall of Fame

Carol Burnett: Hall of Fame Tribute

Jack Slater

“Take the risk!” – Carol Burnett

Carol Burnett is television's most versatile star. A comedienne, a singer, a dancer, a dramatic actress — she has explored and conquered just about every format that television entertainment offers: situation comedy, musical variety, comedy variety, musical special, dramatic special. With a television career that has spanned three decades, a career that still remains in full flight, Burnett is also the medium’s most durable star — its most durable, and, as the winner of five Emmys, one of its most honored.

Burnett belongs to that first generation of television performers whose professional lives were launched by the electronic medium, the first generation whose careers were indeed designed for the home screen. To that extent, she represents television entertainment at its most multifaceted.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, on April 26, 1934, Burnett moved to Los Angeles with her parents and her grandmother in 1940. From her mother, who was a writer, she learned to love language, so much so that after her graduation from Hollywood High School, where she had edited the school newspaper, she studied theater arts at UCLA with the intention of becoming a playwright or a journalist.

In one of the university’s acting courses, she discovered she could make people laugh. It was a propitious discovery, about which she would later say, “It was an extraordinary feeling. It was a sort of discovery I didn’t know I had."

When Burnett was a sophomore, she and other students in the university's theater arts department were invited to perform at a private party in San Diego. Burnett sang a few parodies of the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun. After her performance, a wealthy contractor encouraged her to go to New York. When she explained she didn't have the necessary funds to go anywhere, the stranger offered to loan her $1,000 on the condition that she would never reveal his name and that she must repay the loan in five years. Overjoyed at the offer, Burnett agreed to the conditions, accepted the loan, and, later that year, moved to New York to launch her career.

Supporting herself as a hatcheck girl, she pounded the proverbial pavements, haunted talent agents’ offices, sang in summer stock at the Catskills, and performed at industrial conventions. Then, in 1954, she landed a role for thirteen weeks as the girlfriend of a ventriloquist's dummy on NBC's The Paul Winchell-Jerry Mahoney Show. It was a minor role, but it represented her first tentative step into television. She had arrived at television when both she and the medium were young enough to be shaped by each other. She was twenty-one years old, and network television was less than ten.

During the 1956-57 season, Burnett portrayed Buddy Hackett’s girlfriend in NBC's Stanley, a short-lived situation comedy that was telecast live from New York.

Her work in that series led her to CBS's daytime The Garry Moore Show, where, as a regular, she sang and enlarged her comedy routines. At about the same time, she attracted nationwide attention on both NBC’s The Jack Paar Show and CBS’s Toast of the Town (The Ed Sullivan Show), when she, portraying a lovesick teenager, sang the comical “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," to the delight of President Eisenhower’s elderly secretary of state, in whose honor the song had been written.

In 1959, Burnett made her Broadway debut in the popular Once Upon a Mattress as the raucous, irrepressible Princess Winifred the Woebegone. After her triumph in that musical, she later starred in two of its TV versions.

During the same year, she returned to television as a regular performer on CBS’s The Garry Moore Evening Show. Her work on that variety program established her as one of television’s brightest, brashest comediennes. It also catapulted her to the stardom she has retained ever since. She remained with the show for three years before returning to Broadway in 1964 to star in Fade Out, Fade In.

During the 1964-65 television season, Burnett co-starred in the CBS variety show The Entertainers with Bob Newhart and Caterina Valente. Shortly after the show’s demise, Burnett, who had returned to Los Angeles to live, was approached by CBS about doing her own television series, a comedy-variety program to be called The Carol Burnett Show. Thinking perhaps of her one-season experience with The Entertainers, Burnett reportedly said of the program that would bear her name, ‘‘It’ll never last the season.” Fortunately, for television’s sake, she was wrong. The show lasted more than a decade.

From September 11, 1967, to March 29, 1978, The Carol Burnett Show dominated the airwaves, held its own in the ratings stakes, and harvested twenty-two Emmys. The show became Burnett’s greatest triumph as she demonstrated week after week, and year after year, the extraordinary range of her talent as a variety performer who could sing, dance, act, clown, and mime with equal facility.

As the show’s host and star, Burnett usually opened her program with a monologue that was followed by the comedienne and her guest star candidly answering questions from the studio audience. The show also featured sketches that spoofed television series and popular movies — for example, Mildred Fierce, From There to Eternity, and the famous dress-from-an-old-curtain scene from Gone With the Wind, in which Burnett managed to outfit herself in drapes, curtain rods, and drapery hooks.

In other comedy sketches, she and one of the show’s regulars — Harvey Korman — portrayed an elderly married couple rocking back and forth on the front porch as they remembered the past and wondered what their future might have been if circumstances had been different. In a sketch about another married couple, Burnett and Korman, both younger this time, are invariably bickering between themselves and arguing with their liberated teenage daughter, portrayed by Vicki Lawrence, Burnett’s look-alike.

One of the longest-running variety programs in television history, The Carol Burnett Show held the nation captive every week for eleven seasons. And, thanks to reruns, the show continues to entertain viewers as the syndicated series, Carol Burnett and Friends.

After her show ended its spectacular run in the originals, Burnett the comedienne soon transformed herself into Burnett the dramatic actress. Her lead portrayals as a mother coping with the Vietnam-related death of her son in ABC’s Friendly Fire (1979), a middle-aged unwed mother in CBS’s The Tenth Month (1979), and a divorcee in HBO’s Between Friends (1983) have all further established the actress as television’s most diverse, most complete performer.

Her various musical specials have simply added luster to a distinguished career: Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall (1963), with Julie Andrews; Sills and Burnett at the Met (1976), with Beverly Sills; Dolly and Carol in Nashville (1978), with Dolly Parton; and Burnett “Discovers” Domingo (1984), with Placido Domingo.

Moreover, her television career has existed concomitantly with her career on the stage (Plaza Suite in 1970 and Same Time Next Year in 1977), as well as in films (Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed, 1963; A Wedding, 1978; The Four Seasons, 1980; and Annie, 1982).

Carol Burnett, a woman whose career encompasses television’s past, present, and future, is one of the few living monuments to the medium’s versatility, its excellence, and its capability.

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Carol Burnett's induction in 1985.

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