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Carol Burnett: The 'Fresh Air' Interview


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.


DAVIES: That's the theme from "The Carol Burnett Show," which ran on CBS from 1967 to '78. Carol Burnett will be honored tomorrow night with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Screen Actors Guild awards ceremony, which will be simulcast live on TNT and TBS. Burnett's variety show, which won 22 Emmys, was famous for its movie parodies, the soap opera spoof "As The Stomach Churns," and its sketches about a bickering family. For most of the show's run, she shared the stage with Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Tim Conway. She's received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center honor and its Mark Twain Prize for Humor. She's now in development with CBS films on a theatrical project originated by her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, who died of cancer in 2002. Carol Burnett has written three memoirs. Terry spoke to her in 2003, when the first, "One More Time," was published in a new edition.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Now, you were raised primarily by your grandmother even when your mother was alive, right?

CAROL BURNETT: Yes. Actually, my folks, my parents came to Hollywood from Texas and left me there with my grandmother. They were hoping that they were going to strike it big out here in Hollywood. And then they divorced. And so my grandmother and I followed my mother out to Hollywood in 1940. And mama lived in an apartment building one block north of Hollywood Boulevard, but really a million miles away from Hollywood. You know, it was just the neighborhood. And she got us a single room which faced the lobby of the building. And mama was down the hall. And so nanny - that was my grandmother - and I lived in this one room. But the doors were always open. And mama was in our place as much as we were down the hall with her.

GROSS: Now, two things I read about your grandmother that seem totally contradictory to me, or at least difficult to live with as a package, is that, one, she was a hypochondriac, and two, she was a Christian Scientist. Was she both?

BURNETT: (Laughter) Go figure - she was a hypochondriacal Christian Scientist. She would have Mary Baker Eddy's scientific - "Science And Health With Key To The Scriptures." And she would hold that book, and she would read it and - what we call - she would know the truth. In other words, there is no illness, there is no evil, there is no this and that. But then she was constantly feeling her pulse and saying, oh, my God, I'm dying, get me a phenobarbital.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: So, you know, she had all the bases covered. If God didn't come through for her, and she didn't know the truth well enough, I would have to run in and, you know, get the pills.

GROSS: Now, your parents were both drinkers. They were alcoholics. Did they become different people when they drank?

BURNETT: Yes and no. Actually, my dad drank before my mother did. In fact, at one time I remember seeing mama break a bottle of his that she'd found and pour it down the sink. But Daddy, when he drank, just became sweeter. There wasn't a mean thought in his body. I've always said he was like a drunk Jimmy Stewart, you know? (Laughter) He just got sweeter. But he was ineffectual. He couldn't hold a job. You know, he was just a hopeless - he had that disease. Mama didn't start drinking until later. She wasn't living with Daddy then. But she started heavily in her 30s. And she was a mean drunk. She could really get mean and vicious and angry. Again, that frustration just came out when she drank. She was very witty, and she was very beautiful.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in Los Angeles. You went to Hollywood High. How do you think your encounters with the world of show business were any different growing up in Los Angeles and going to Hollywood High than they would have been had you, say, stayed in San Antonio? Were you connected by geography to the world of Hollywood?

BURNETT: No, not at all. It could have been a different name. The difference was we had all these movie theaters on Hollywood Boulevard. And my grandmother would save up enough money because way back then, before I turned 12, it was 11 cents for me to go to the movies and it was a quarter for my grandmother, you know. And we would see - on the average in the '40s - we would see eight movies a week because we would go to two movies during the week and then two on the weekend. But they were all double features - second runs is what we called them. You know, so I would see eight movies a week. So that was my connection to Hollywood, but that could've been in San Antonio also. And Hollywood High - they didn't have a drama class, of all things. So mama said, you know, you ought to take up journalism. And I did at Hollywood High. And I got very interested in that. So that's what I really kind of thought I was going to be. So - and mama kept pushing it because that's what she wanted to do.

GROSS: Right. Was there a point when you realized that's what she wanted to do and not necessarily what you wanted to do?

BURNETT: After the fact. So when I got into UCLA, I thought I was going to major in journalism. But they did not have a major in journalism. So I took a course in my freshman year - a journalism course - and joined the Daily Bruin. But then I majored in theater arts, English, because then I could get the playwriting courses. And no matter what, when you major in theater arts whether you want to write or be a director or design scenery or whatever, when you are a freshman at UCLA then - I guess it's still the same way - you had to take an acting class - acting 1a, they called it. And so I was kind of terrified about it and had to get up in front of some people. And I did a scene with a guy who was in the class that was a comedy scene, and they laughed. And I thought, that's really nice, you know? (Laughter) I like that. I just felt validated, you know? And it was a high. And all through high school and junior high, I guess you could describe me as being one of the nerds. You know, there was - we had a little group of us. You know, I was quiet. I was not particularly attractive. I had friends - I had a lot of buddies - but I was not what one would call very popular. But after I did a few scenes, you know, in this acting class, and then I got cast in a couple of one-acts at UCLA, people on campus would come up, even seniors and graduate students, saying, God, we really liked you in that and so forth, and why don't you come over on the lawn here and have lunch with us today? And all of a sudden, I started to get popular. And I said this on a couple of interviews, you know - it was a great way to meet guys. And I thought, this is really kind of what I want to do. But I wouldn't tell my grandmother, and I wouldn't tell my mama.

GROSS: Were you afraid they'd shoot it down and tell you you weren't good enough...


GROSS: ...You weren't pretty enough, you're not whatever?

BURNETT: You got it. Yeah.

DAVIES: Carol Burnett speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 2003 interview with Carol Burnett, who's being honored tomorrow night with the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.


GROSS: One of the things your show, "The Carol Burnett Show," was famous for was your movie parodies.


GROSS: And you said earlier that when you were a kid, you'd go to maybe eight movies a week with your grandmother. Are their movies from your childhood that you ended up doing parodies of on "The Carol Burnett Show?"

BURNETT: Oh, yes. "Mildred Pierce," Joan Crawford, "The Postman Always Rings Twice," Lana Turner, "Gilda," Rita Hayworth, "Gone With The Wind," Vivien Leigh. Even something as remote as a movie called "Born To Be Bad" with Joan Fontaine, and we called it "Raised To Be Rotten.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BURNETT: And (laughter) I would just go to the writers and I'd say, can we do "Mildred Pierce?" And they would get the film and run it. And sure enough - I mean, it was just great. And about three or four weeks, we would have the sketch.

GROSS: Is it fun to do the kind of glamour roles that you figure you're probably not going to get because you're a comedic actress and you don't think of yourself as the glamorous type? So is it fun to do those glamour roles, but to do, like, the comic version of them?

BURNETT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, remember Bob Mackie putting me in all white, and I had a white wig, practically. Lana Turner in "Postman Always Rings Twice" always wore white. And - oh, and I had the eyelashes on and the - you know, the white shoes and the white slim skirt and the blouse and the thing - you know, and white earrings and coming down the stairs because her first entrance in "Postman" is just showing her legs walk down the stairs and this sexy music and John Garfield just gaping at her. And Steve Lawrence playing the Garfield role, and Harvey was the husband we murdered.


BURNETT: You know, it was - yeah, and I remember when we did "Gilda," I got a telegram from Rita Hayworth. And she said that's just great, and can I come and play with you? And so she came on our show, Rita Hayworth...

GROSS: Oh, wow.

BURNETT: ...Was a guest. Betty Grable was a guest and Lana Turner was a guest on our show and Gloria Swanson. Oh, no, it was just such a thrill. You know, and I thought oh, my God, if Nanny were alive and saw Betty Grable on our show and me doing a number with Betty Grable, it would kill her. She would just faints dead away. You know, the pulse really would race because never in a million years did we ever dream that we'd ever know these people.

GROSS: She would've needed one of those phenobarbitals.

BURNETT: Oh, my dear. Oh, my dear. (Laughter).

GROSS: You mention Bob Mackie, who did the costumes for your show. And he's - God, he's designed so many, like, really extravagant gowns over the years. I mean, you know, he did Charro's (ph) clothes, too.


GROSS: So - well, what - go ahead.

BURNETT: What he did on our show, which people don't know, don't realize, he designed everything you saw on our show, including the wigs, including the makeup so that whatever - not just what I wore but what the guests wore, what the cast wore, whatever, you know? And he created all of those hysterical looks.

GROSS: Did he design for Harvey Korman in drag?

BURNETT: Yes, yes, yes, that's all Bob. And of course, the greatest sight gag ever, I think, one of the greatest was his idea for the "Gone With The Wind Sketch" with the curtain-rod dress.

GROSS: Describe it.

BURNETT: When we did "Gone With The Wind," the takeoff, there's a scene when Scarlett O'Hara - Rhett Butler's coming to call on her and she doesn't want Rhett to know they're poor. So she rips the draperies down, the green velvet draperies down, and says she's going to make a dress. Well, the writers had written that I come down the stairs with the draperies just kind of hanging on me, which would have been funny enough. But I went into costume fitting that Wednesday and Bob said I have an idea. And he had the dress draped over a curtain rod, which fit over my shoulders and ran straight out, tied with the fringe around the waist. It was the silliest looking thing you've ever seen in your life, and I fell on the floor. And then when we did it, you know, in the taping, the audience - the laughs just wouldn't stop when I made my entrance. And then I came down the stairs - and it was very hard on me because I was biting the inside of my cheek not to laugh myself because of the reaction of the audience which is phenomenal. And Harvey, you know, looking so like Clark Gable. And he was brilliant in it. And then his line was Scarlett? You're magnificent. That dress, that dress is - that dress is just gorgeous. And then I say thank you. I saw it in the window and I just couldn't resist it. And you can't...


BURNETT: You can't beat those lines with the look of that, you know? But what fun, what fun.

GROSS: Did Bob Mackie also design the falsies that the men and women on your show had to wear?

BURNETT: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, yes.

GROSS: What was the most creative falsie that he designed?

BURNETT: Well, the ones that kind of hang and move, you know? Because many designers will put cotton in, you know, and build it up that way. But Bob puts rice in them so that they move.

GROSS: And (laughter).

BURNETT: You get the picture?

GROSS: How do you use that as an actress?

BURNETT: Well, as an - well, I did Charro's mother at one point. And he made me a bodysuit, where I was - had this big belly that was a midriff. And he put the belly button in there, and it was skin color and the whole thing. And then he made these boobs that kind of hung down over the belly in this red sequined top. So all I had to do was just move my shoulders back and forth, and of course the boobs would whip back and forth across my belly button, you know? And so it didn't matter what you said. It was how you looked. So Bob saved many, many a sketch for us 'cause not all of our sketches were gems. You know, some were bombs, and sometimes he would put me in stuff that would save - literally save the sketch.

GROSS: Now, let me ask you, I know - and this is public so I don't feel like I'm kind of saying anything that you wouldn't want me to say, but let me know if I'm wrong - that I think it was in the '80s that you decided to have some cosmetic surgery and you had your chin...


GROSS: ...Changed.


GROSS: Tell me why you wanted to do that. You know, you mentioned that, like, your mother said to you when you were a kid


GROSS: ...That you should go into journalism...


GROSS: ...Because no matter what you look like...


GROSS: ...You can still keep working.

BURNETT: Well, I always had a weak chin because we couldn't afford to correct my bite, which could have been corrected with braces. So the chin was always weak. And I always was - kind of hated my profile. And I thought wouldn't it be nice someday to feel the rain on your chin without having to look up, you know?


BURNETT: So I was living in Hawaii, and my daughter Jody had the opposite problem. She had an under bite. And so we went to this oral surgeon, and he said he could fix her. And then he looked at me, and he said, you know, I can fix your bite, too. So I got a chin (laughter). The story I tell about that was I had just finished doing "Annie" - playing Miss Hannigan in "Annie." And I went back to Hawaii, and we were there and I got the operation on my chin. So I'm recuperating and Ray Stark, who produced "Annie," called me in Honolulu. And he said, we're going to reshoot the "Easy Street" number with you and Bernadette and Tim Curry.

GROSS: Oh, I see the problem.

BURNETT: I said oh, really, you know, right? And I explained to him, you know, what - he said with all that Miss Hannigan drag that you're wearing, nobody's going to notice anything. Besides, it's going to be separate from other scenes, so it'll just be its own thing and nobody's going to notice that. It's - you know, it's you. And we're singing and dancing and running around. I said of course I'm coming back. So I flew back. And John Huston directed "Annie," and he was there. And we were going to start the number, and he said well, now wait a minute. I think what I'd like to do here is why don't we pick it up from when Carol had run into the closet to get - to find Annie's locket? And let's pick it up when she comes running out of the closet with the locket. And I said oh, dear. And I went up to him and I said Mr. Houston. He said yes, dear? Yes? I said two months ago when I ran into the closet, I didn't have a chin. And now when I run out of the closet, I'm going to have a chin. You know, it was like boom, boom. And he thought for a minute, and he said well, dear, just come out looking determined.

GROSS: (Laughter) Did anybody ever point out to you that you looked different?

BURNETT: No, no. And so - and there are some other scenes that we reshot where I've got a chin in the beginning, then I don't. And then I - but nobody's ever...

GROSS: I have to go back...

BURNETT: Said anything.

GROSS: And re-watch it now (laughter).

BURNETT: You should, yeah (laughter). I just think that's the funniest piece of direction anybody could ever get.

DAVIES: Carol Burnett speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2003. Burnett will be honored tomorrow night with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Screen Actors Guild Award Ceremony, which will be simulcast live on TNT and TBS. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Naz And Maalik." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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