Best known for her eponymous variety show, Carol Burnett is one of America’s most popular old-school entertainers. But like many showbiz veterans, she’s faced her fair share of hardship over the course of her long-running career. Here’s a look at why the multi-talented star took a break from the spotlight and why she’s now returning to it.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1933, Burnett was raised by her grandmother in a Hollywood boarding house. She initially dreamed of becoming a playwright, but while studying English and theatre arts at UCLA, she got the performing bug. She later moved to New York to pursue an acting career and gained her first notable role in 1955 on The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show.
A year later she was cast alongside Buddy Hackett in Stanley, a sitcom that lasted just a single season. After it had been canceled, Burnett switched her focus to the stage. She became a popular draw on the cabaret circuit and in 1960 received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in the musical Once Upon A Mattress.
Burnett won her first Emmy during her three-year stint on The Garry Moore Show and her second for a Carnegie Hall special with Julie Andrews. She also became a regular on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., appeared on The Entertainers and was taken under the wing of Lucille Ball. But her status as a Hollywood great was assured in 1967 when she landed her own self-titled variety show.
A mix of parodies, musical numbers, original sketches and audience participation, The Carol Burnett Show proved to network bosses that a woman could front a TV variety show. It also picked up an incredible 23 Emmy Awards during its 11-year run. Sketch compilation series Carol Burnett and Friends extended the show’s shelf life, running in syndication for several years.
During the show’s run, Burnett showcased her dramatic skills in 6 Rms Riv U, became Sesame Street’s first famous guest and starred alongside Rock Hudson in I Do! I Do! She also played Langley Wallingford’s daughter Verla Grubbs in daytime soap opera All My Children. After that show had been canceled, she appeared in The Four Seasons, Annie and Noises Off and became a regular panelist on Password Plus.
Burnett attempted to bring the variety format back to our screens several times throughout the 1980s and 1990s but to little avail. She enjoyed far more success with the recurring role of Theresa Stemple on Mad About You and her Broadway return in Moon Over Buffalo. However, Burnett was forced to put her career on hold in the early ’00s due to a personal tragedy.
Indeed, in 2002 Burnett’s eldest daughter Carrie passed away from lung cancer at the age of just 38. Like her mother, Carrie had enjoyed success in Hollywood. She played Maureen Johnson in Rent’s first national tour, showcased both her acting and musical talents in Tokyo Pop and appeared alongside Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger in Cool World.
Carrie also worked with her famous parent on several occasions. In 1987 they both guested on Fame; a year later they co-starred in TV movie Hostage; and in 1997 they played mother and daughter on Touched by an Angel. The pair also collaborated on Hollywood Arms, a stage adaptation of Burnett’s autobiography, One More Time, but sadly Carrie died before its premiere.
Born in 1963, Carrie was the first of three children Burnett had with Joe Hamilton, the TV producer, who already had eight kids from a previous marriage. The pair, who wed that same year, welcomed Jody into the world in 1967 and then Erin in 1968. Hamilton passed away from cancer in 1991, seven years after the couple filed for divorce.
Of course, this wasn’t Burnett’s first divorce. The star first married Don Saroyan, her college sweetheart, in 1955, before the pair split just seven years later. Burnett also walked down the aisle for a third time in 2001 when she wed the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra’s principal drummer, Brian Miller.
Although Burnett largely kept quiet about her daughter’s death at the time, she later opened up to People magazine in 2018. “I think of her every day,” she revealed. “She never leaves me… I just feel her. You don’t get over it, but you cope. What else can you do? When Carrie died, I didn’t want to get out of bed for a while.”
Burnett also spoke of Carrie’s inquisitive nature, adding, “She was very interested in people, She never met a stranger. I think it’s in our genes… [knowing] you can make somebody’s day by being kind.” Burnett then recalled one particular time in New York where her daughter offered to give various homeless people ten dollars each for their personal stories.
But Burnett didn’t shy away from the more troubling aspects of Carrie’s life either. Referring to Carrie’s teenage drug addiction, the comedian said, “She got sober when she was 17. I put her in a third rehab place, and oh my God, she hated me. I came to the conclusion that I had to love her enough to let her hate me.”
Thankfully, the pair began to bond again once Carrie became sober and continued to enjoy a close relationship until her untimely death. Burnett told People that she initially didn’t want to work following her passing. However, she felt obliged to her daughter to bring Hollywood Arms, the play they had worked on together, to life.
Burnett believes that her daughter was guiding her throughout this tough time. She told People, “I got on a plane and said a little prayer to Carrie, and said, ‘I’ve got to do this alone. Don’t leave me alone. Give me a sign that you’re with me.’” Burnett was later given a bouquet of Carrie’s favorite flowers and a champagne bottle labeled with her middle name.
Four years before her People magazine interview, Burnett had also discussed her relationship with her daughter in Carrie and Me. The memoir’s audio version picked up a Best Spoken Word Album nod at the Grammys, as did its 2011 predecessor, This Time Together. Burnett finally got to add a Grammy to her awards collection thanks to 2016’s In Such Good Company.
Although Burnett’s work rate slowed down after Carrie’s death, she still enjoyed several memorable roles. She received an Emmy nod for her 2009 guest turn in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She voiced characters in animated hits Horton Hears a Who! and The Secret World of Arrietty. And she also showed up in several episodes of Glee, Hot in Cleveland and Hawaii Five-O.
And in 2018 Burnett was given her very own Netflix show. A Little Help with Carol Burnett saw the star host a panel of five-to-nine-year-olds who offered advice to both the general public and famous faces about important everyday issues. Billy Eichner, DJ Khaled and Lisa Kudrow were just a few of the celebrities who put themselves at the mercy of the youngsters.
And Burnett told the Hollywood Reporter that she has no plans to retire any time soon. “It doesn’t feel like work. If it did, I don’t think I’d want to do it. I still go on the road and do my one-woman Q&A show. And I enjoy that because I never know what anyone is going to ask — it keeps the old gray matter ticking.”