Looking younger than her 89 years, Carol Burnett joined in the celebration as Julie Andrews was recently honored with AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The pair met in 1960 and immediately became close friends. “It was if we’d always known each other,” says Carol. 

That’s not surprising because Carol has always felt like an old friend to her fans. This down-to-earth comic has seen success in theater, film and as an author, but her groundbreaking TV series, The Carol Burnett Show, made her part of the family. “We have all known someone like Carol in our lives,” Kenny Solms, co-creator of Carol’s variety series and author of the memoir Bits, tells Closer. “She’s your best friend from high school or your neighbor who’s a doll. She’s as American as apple pie.” 

Carol Burnett Is 'One of the Strongest People' After Tragedy

Her life story is also a very American rags to riches one — although overcoming poverty and becoming a TV star didn’t shield Carol from additional heartache. She’s weathered two divorces, addiction issues with two of her three daughters and the cancer death of her eldest. In 2020, the performer went to court to obtain temporary guardianship of her teenage grandson Dylan, whose mother, Carol’s youngest, Erin Hamilton, continues to suffer from addiction. “Carol is one of the strongest people I’ve ever met,” says a close friend. “She has a lot of faith and believes her love of laughter has helped her deal with life’s tragedies.”

Carol, who was born in Texas but raised in Hollywood, grew up poor with divorced, alcoholic parents, but also a maternal grandmother, Mabel, who was her protector and inspiration. “We went to eight movies a week sometimes,” recalls Carol. “There were double features at that time, so we’d go to four theaters a week.” 

It was a welcome escape. “Growing up, Carol didn’t even have a closet. She had to use the shower curtain rod in the bathtub for her clothes,” says Solms. Carol’s father was largely absent, and visits from her mother, Ina, who lived down the hall, were unpredictable. “She and Nanny had one doozy of an argument after another about our lack of money and Mama’s ‘pipe dreams,’” recalled Carol in her 2016 memoir In Such Good Company. Her mother dreamed of becoming a famous Hollywood journalist, but drinking got in the way. “Both my parents died of alcoholism,” Carol says. 

Fate was kinder to their daughter. In 1954, Carol’s performance in a UCLA play attracted the attention of an audience member who asked her about her goals. She confessed that she wanted to go to New York to audition for musical comedies but didn’t have the resources. “He lent me $1,000,” recalls Carol. “He said, ‘There are stipulations to this. It’s a loan. You pay it back in five years, no interest, and you never reveal my name.’”

It was money well spent. In 1959, Carol was nominated for a Tony for her role in Once Upon a Mattress. She became a regular on The Garry Moore Show and did several TV specials and live performances before landing The Carol Burnett Show, which ran from 1967 to 1978. 

The schedule of filming her variety show even allowed her and second husband Joe Hamilton, a producer on the series, to be hands-on parents to daughters Carrie, who was born in 1963, Jody, 55, and Erin, 53. “It wasn’t always easy,” notes Solms. “But she would have dinner every night at home except Friday night [due to taping]. She wanted to keep her home life balanced.”

Carol Burnett Is 'One of the Strongest People' After Tragedy

In her teen years, Carrie struggled with substance abuse, a period that strained Carol’s patience and frayed her marriage to Joe. The couple’s union didn’t survive, but Carrie’s third time in rehab worked. “Oh my God, she hated me,” recalled Carol. “I came to the conclusion that I had to love her enough to let her hate me.” In the last two decades of her life, as Carrie earned her own acclaim as an actress, singer and writer, she and Carol became best friends — making Carrie’s passing at age 38 in 2002 an even more heartbreaking tragedy. “Carol never got over that loss — no parent ever does,” says a friend. 

She has been grateful for her third husband, Brian Miller, 66. A musician with the Hollywood Bowl orchestra, Brian supported Carol in her grief and remains her rock. In 2020, the couple stepped up to become the temporary legal guardians of Dylan Hamilton-West, 15, the son of Carol’s youngest, Erin. “In the past 19 years, Erin has been in and out of rehabilitation centers and has been institutionalized a total of eight times,” the couple attested in court. 

Today, Dylan is thriving at a boarding school, and Erin is finding her way. “She still has her good days and her bad days, but Carol understands addiction better than most people,” says the friend, who adds that the comedian remains hopeful. “Carol loves life. She’s proud of her family, her career and her friends. She’s never had it easy, but she knows that she has been blessed.” 

—Reporting by Rick Egusquiza

For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.