As a child, Carol Burnett would sometimes climb the landmark Hollywood sign, which back then still spelled out Hollywoodland. “It was rickety scaffolding behind them,” Carol says of the giant letters, adding that the O’s were her favorite. “It was a wonder we didn’t break our necks.”
Daring, undeniable talent and some incredibly good fortune helped Carol, who turned 90 in April, become a show business legend, but her strength has also been severely tested by tragedy and unimaginable personal loss. Carol says she perseveres by “just knowing that when you’re down, there is always going to be an up. Life can change on a dime, so just be grateful today for what you have.”
The child of alcoholics, Carol and her half-sister, Chrissie, found fragile stability with the grandmother who raised them in a Los Angeles boardinghouse. Money was scarce, but splurging on an afternoon at the movies became a much-needed escape. “I think those movies may be what did it for me — an imprint on a young mind and a young girl growing up that everything’s possible. You can be happy,” says Carol.
Steve Boettcher, producer of the recent film Carol Burnett: A Celebration, calls the comedienne an inspiration. “She would go to the movies and just dream, as young children do,” he says. “It’s so exciting that she achieved so much and she paved the way for so many.”
Something about Carol’s moxie attracted good luck. In 1951, an anonymous donor mailed her the $50 tuition she needed to attend UCLA. “I still don’t know who it was,” confesses Carol, who signed up for an acting class en route to entering the playwright program. The day she got her first laugh on stage opened her eyes. “I had always been a quiet, shy, sad sort of girl, and then everything changed,” she recalls.
Carol experienced a second stroke of luck a few years later. After performing at a party during her junior year, an impressed guest offered Carol and her future first husband an interest-free loan to help them get to New York for auditions. “I had never seen that many zeros in my life,” she recalls.
Within a year, Carol had become a popular cabaret and nightclub performer, but her life couldn’t remain charmed forever. In 1957, she achieved her dream of appearing on Ed Sullivan and The Tonight Show, but then her mother passed away after years of alcohol abuse. “No one ever said life was fair,” says Carol. “Just eventful.”
She soldiered on and broke through playing Princess Winnifred off-Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress. “I didn’t get a day off,” says Carol, who was simultaneously appearing on The Garry Moore Show. One night, while playing Winnifred, she fell asleep on stage. “I was out for about 10 or 15 seconds,” she recalls. “The stage manager in the wings was saying, ‘Carol, Carol, wake up!”
By the dawn of the 1970s, Carol appeared to have it all. She was the star of TV’s most popular variety series, wife to show producer Joe Hamilton, and mother of three girls, Carrie, Jody and Erin. “[The network] did not expect us to last past that first season, but got over 270 episodes in 11 years,” she says.
On the series, Carol reveled in 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 laughter.”
At the height of Carol’s success, a storm began brewing as her teenage daughter Carrie started using alcohol and drugs. “It’s a way to sort of numb the pain that comes with growing up,” said Carrie, who was involuntarily sent to rehab three times before she gained sobriety after five tumultuous years.
‘The strain likely impacted Carol’s marriage to Joe, as the couple divorced in 1984. Fortunately, Carol and her daughter became close before Carrie died from the complications of lung cancer in 2002. “There’s not a day or almost a moment goes by that she’s not with me,” says Carol.
At 90, the star has only slowed down a little. She and third husband Brian Miller have stepped in to raise her grandson Dylan, 16, the son of her youngest daughter, Erin. “He texted me just yesterday to say, ‘I love you so much,’” shares Carol, who says that she stays sharp by playing Wordle and doing crossword puzzles. The six-time Emmy winner is still working, too. She will next appear in Palm Royale, a 10-part comedy coming soon to Apple TV+. Through good times and challenging times, Carol’s learned to keep smiling. “It all happened the way it was supposed to,” she says. “I wouldn’t change anything. I had a good run.”