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Celebrating ‘Queen of Comedy’ Carol Burnett

Carol Burnett will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards tomorrow. To celebrate the funny lady, here are seven fun facts about her legendary life and career.

Carol Burnett a Lifetime Achievement Award, which is rewarded annually for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment. Burnett says she was “gobsmacked” when she found out, stealing a favorite phrase from good pal Julie Andrews. The award will be presented at the Kennedy Center by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who said, “We all hail Carol as the queen for a lot of reasons.” She’s in good company.

Burnett has received quite a few awards already, of course. The SAG award will be joining a slew of Emmys and Golden Globes, a Tony, a Peabody, the Mark Twain Prize of Humor, a Kennedy Center Honor, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As if that’s not honorable enough, Carol Burnett was also the very first celebrity on Sesame Street, appearing in the first episode on November 10, 1969.

Burnett first made a name for herself on Broadway, getting nominated for a Tony for her very first play, Once Upon A Mattress. She’s also made her mark in the movies with Pete ‘n’ Tillie, The Front Page, The Four Seasons, and Annie, working with directors like Martin Ritt, Billy Wilder, Alan Alda, and John Huston. But it was her plunge into comedy and variety, beginning with The Garry Moore Show and culminating in the creation of The Carol Burnett Show (as well as multiple TV specials) that had the most impact on the entertainment world. The Carol Burnett Show ran for 11 years, won 25 Emmys, and entertained 30 million people every week with comedy sketches, parodies, musical numbers, and a parade of guest stars that read like a Hollywood who’s who.

Carol Burnett Photo

Carol Burnett as the Charwoman on The Carol Burnett Show in 1974. (Photo: CBS Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

With Bob Mackie’s inspired costumes, and an ensemble that included Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner, the Ernie Flatt Dancers, and a 28-piece orchestra, Carol Burnett made TV audiences laugh week after week with recurring characters like Eunice, Mrs. Wiggins, and the Charwoman, and unforgettable send-ups of soap operas, and a legendary version of Gone With The Wind in which her dress made from curtains still had the rod in it.

The shows weren’t live, but they were live-to-tape, and the cast rolled with the punches, whether that meant cracking each other up—and they all swear that they tried not to with every fiber of their beings—or even dealing with natural disasters, as evidenced during a segment with The Jackson 5, when a mild earthquake hit in the middle of a sketch:

No one will ever claim Carol isn’t quick on her feet!

In addition to having an incredible career, Carol Burnett has also had a pretty incredible life. Here are seven fun facts about this brilliant woman who’s known not just for her wit and talent, but also for her humanity and kindness. Ask anyone who’s ever dealt with her, no matter what their job or title, and you’ll get the same story: she’s lovely.

She’s also pretty darned funny off screen as well as on, as proven by fun fact #1:

SHE’S THE QUEEN OF THE AWKWARD CELEBRITY ENCOUNTER 

The first time Carol Burnett saw Jimmy Stewart in a movie, she told her grandmother they were destined to be friends. But the first time she met him was on a movie set, long before her career took off, and she was so overcome that she stepped into a bucket of whitewash. With no idea what to do next, she turned around and walked towards the exit, dragging the bucket with her. How could anyone not have known at that moment that comedy was her destiny? 

Years later, her fame well-established, she was at a party with met another of her idols, Cary Grant. She was so nervous she tried hiding from him. When someone introduced them directly, she was so star-struck she didn’t hear a word he said, and finally blurted out, “You’re a credit to your profession,” and ran for the hills. 

When she and her husband lived in the same building as author John Steinbeck, they longed for a glimpse of him. They were both big fans and had read every book he’d ever written. One day they got into the elevator and boom! there he was. Steinbeck recognized her, and started chatting, and she told him what a big fan she was. As they reached his floor, she realized she hadn’t yet introduced her husband and finally stammered out an introduction. “This is my husband, George Hamilton.” Her husband, JOE Hamilton, didn’t speak to her again until the following afternoon. 

Other strange encounters included Joan Crawford getting on her knees next to Burnett in a restaurant, excited to connect after becoming somewhat awkward pen pals, and Marlon Brando calling her to find out where she’d had her “chin work” done when she had just walked in her door with an armful of groceries and a tremendous need to go to the bathroom. The legendary Barbara Stanwyck once gave her prophecies (that came true) from a leprechaun. Really. 

BUT SHE HAS TONS OF CELEBRITY FRIENDS ANYWAY 

She eventually became good friends with Jimmy Stewart and his wife Gloria, and Cary Grant as well. She’s so close to Julie Andrews—a friendship predicted by everyone who knew both of them well before they finally met—that she’s the godmother to Julie’s daughter Emma. And one of her first showbiz friendships was with the legendary Lucille Ball, who came to see her performance in Once Upon A Mattress in 1959 and then came to see her backstage. Over the years, they became very close, with Ball giving her advice on how to navigate some of the challenges of the male-dominated entertainment industry. Opera singer Beverly Sills was one of her nearest and dearest. 

Pal Elizabeth Taylor apparently was a bit of a prankster. Burnett was taping of All My Children, a soap she loved so much that they’d written her into it. Suddenly a cleaning woman, not in the script, bumped right into her, and she swore. Under the costume was Taylor, laughing as she caught her friend completely off guard. The show aired, expletive and all. 

SHE’S MADE HER IMPACT IN THE LEGAL WORLD, TOO 

In 1976, the National Enquirer published a story claiming that a drunken Burnett was involved in an argument with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a restaurant in Washington, DC. Burnett fought back. As the child of two alcoholics, she was not okay with her daughters one day reading that she’d been drunk in public, and the story wasn’t true. 

The case took seven years to resolve and became a landmark when it came to libel cases. She had to prove “actual malice,” which meant that the paper knew the story was false and printed it anyway. 

She proved it. Employees of the restaurant testified that they had denied the story to Enquirer reporters, and the reporters themselves admitted that they’d told their bosses they couldn’t verify it and their editors went ahead and published it. Initially she was awarded over one and a half million dollars, but that was eventually reduced and they settled out of court. It was still a triumph. She celebrated by donating the money to various charities. 

SHE’LL GO TO GREAT LENGTHS TO GET WHAT SHE WANTS 

When she wanted Harvey Korman for her variety show, Burnett chased him down in the parking lot to plead with him. Years before that, when she couldn’t get past the receptionists zealously guarding their agents, she talked her way backstage to meet theater actor Eddie Foy, Jr. and asked him for help, simply because she’d heard from a former neighbor that he was a good guy. She showed up on a rainy night, told him she wasn’t good enough to dance in a chorus but was looking for a featured role, and he gave her his agent’s number. Ba-boom! 

Even after meeting with his agent, she still faced the age-old actors’ catch-22; she couldn’t get a role because she hadn’t been in anything, and she hadn’t been in anything because she couldn’t get a role. So she rallied the troops at the Stage Door-type apartment where she was living, and mobilized her fellow actresses to put on a showcase. Agents showed up, along with stars Marlene Dietrich and Celeste Holm. It worked, and soon many of the girls scored agents, including Burnett.

Once she started making some money, she and some friends went to New York’s famous upscale ice cream parlor Rumplemayer’s and the hostess tried to kick her out for daring to wear slacks instead of a skirt. Having seen Marlene Dietrich in there in a pantsuit a few months earlier, Burnett stood fast. After the hostess loudly and publicly berated her, she spoke in a faux-low voice—knowing it would carry just enough—and told her that she had a wooden leg and was too embarrassed to wear a skirt. The hostess, embarrassed into silence, found her a table. 

SHE’S HAD SOME BENEFACTORS WHO KICK-STARTED HER CAREER 

While her grandmother, who raised her, wanted her to go to a college for secretaries (in the hopes of ultimately snagging a rich boss), Burnett wanted to go to UCLA. But they were on welfare, and didn’t have the $43 tuition. Then an envelope showed up at their mailbox with $50 in it for tuition, no signature attached, and changed her life. 

Once she was at UCLA, a professor invited her and some classmates to perform at a party, offering to make the performance part of their grades. Afterwards, she headed to the hors d’oeuvres table, so she could slip some food into her bag to bring home to her grandmother. A nice couple tapped her on the shoulder and complimented her performance, then asked what her career plans were. She told them she wanted to do musical comedy on Broadway, and when they asked why she wasn’t doing it already, she confessed she didn’t have the money. So the husband offered to help. He said he would lend her $1000 (which went a long way back in 1956) under the following conditions: 

1. She had to use it to go to New York and give showbiz a try. 

2. She was to pay it back in five years, no interest. 

3. She could never reveal his identity to anyone. 

4. She was to help others the way she was helped. 

She paid it back five years to the day. She has never revealed his name, and she kept her promise to help others. Vicki Lawrence is a prime example: she was befriended by Burnett as a senior in high school, then hired for The Carol Burnett Show and mentored throughout.

At the height of the show’s success, she and her husband Joe met up with her benefactor and his wife for lunch. His wife told her that whenever anyone brought up Carol Burnett in conversation, he never said a word about his connection or the fact that he’s the one who made it possible for her to get things started. He just smiled. 

SHE THINKS BAD WEATHER IS LUCKY 

Her entire life, Burnett has always seen rain or snow—best of all a storm—as a good omen. From taking tests at school to opening days of shows she was in, she’s trusted that bad weather was a good sign. It was raining the night she talked Eddie Foy, Jr. into giving her his agent’s number, it rained the night she hit the stage for the first time in Once Upon a Mattress, and it rained the first day of work at The Carol Burnett Show

In 1976, she did a TV special with Beverly Sills called Sills and Burnett at the Met. Stakes were high: ratings for The Carol Burnett Show were finally starting to wane, and Harvey Korman had left for other opportunities. The first day of work, sunny skies made Burnett very nervous, but the next day a blizzard hit, and she knew the show was going to be a success. To date, it’s one of her favorite specials she’s ever done. 

SHE ONCE APOLOGIZED FOR A BAD PERFORMANCE TO AN ENTIRE PLANE 

Travel has its perils, but perhaps an unusual one is ending up on a flight that’s showing a movie you’re in, especially if you’re not proud of your performance. On a flight home with her husband, Burnett heard the flight attendant announce that the in-flight movie was going to be The Front Page, in which Burnett played Molly Maloy, and not very well in her own estimation. “I yelled every line,” she said. To make it worse, the flight attendant spotted Burnett and pointed her out in the cabin. Everyone waved, all smiles, and she waved back nervously. The movie played, and when it was done? Silence. No smiles. No waves. 

Not one to accept a bad situation, Burnett asked the flight attendant if she could speak over the PA. She then apologized to the entire plane. “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, this is Carol Burnett. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to each and every one of you for my performance in that film.” In response, there were cheers and applause, waves and smiles. 

SHE SURPRISES HERSELF WITH HER AUDIENCE Q&AS 

A trademark of The Carol Burnett Show and Burnett’s live shows across the country is the Q&A with the audience. It’s never scripted, and sometimes her answers even surprise herself. Several years ago in Texas an audience member asked her, “If you could be a man for 24 hours, who would you be and what would you do?” This wasn’t a question she’d contemplated before, but without much hesitation, out came the answer: “I’d be Osama bin Laden, and I’d kill myself.” 

SOMEONE ONCE SAID SOMETHING OBSCENE TO HER ON LIVE TELEVISION 

For TV stars in the 60s and 70s, there was fun to be had doing the game show circuit. Burnett was on Password, paired up with a contestant who had to read a secret word on a card and then give her a one-world clue to see if she could guess it. Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched was on the other team, and if Burnett didn’t get it, the play would pass to Montgomery. Important to note: back then, the show was live. 

Burnett’s team member looked at the word, which was tweet, and thinking he was giving her the past tense of it (which is actually not allowed in Password anyway), he clearly said, “Twat.”

Convinced she’d heard wrong, Burnett said, “Excuse me?” And he repeated it. Burnett was speechless. When play passed to Montgomery, she was laughing so hard she’d fallen off her chair, and the buzzer went off again, indicating the end of the round. 

After that, they started pre-taping the shows. 

In her amazing career, Burnett has won over audiences on stage, in the movies, and of course, on television. In 2009, Burnett won her 6th Emmy for her guest role on Law & Order: SVU, and recently returned to Hawaii Five-O as Steve McGarrett’s aunt. She doesn’t have to worry about a lifetime achievement award as a cap to her career; at 82, she’s still going strong.