Born April 26, 1933, in San Antonio, Texas. Her father, Joseph Burnett, and mother, Ina Louise Burnett, were both often unemployed, and the family lived most of the time on welfare. Burnett was raised primarily by her maternal grandmother, Mabel Eudora White. Her parents divorced in the late 1930s, and Burnett and her grandmother moved to an apartment near her mother’s in an impoverished area of Hollywood, California. Her father and mother, both alcoholics, died in 1954 and 1957 respectively.
After graduating from Hollywood High School in 1951, Burnett won a scholarship to the University of California, where she had planned to continue pursuing her interest in journalism. Instead, she decided to study theater arts and English, with the intent of becoming a playwright. She began performing in university productions, and soon won recognition for her comedic and musical talents. In 1954, during her junior year, Burnett and her boyfriend, Don Saroyan, left college and moved to New York in order to pursue acting careers.
In late 1955, after she had been auditioning and working as a hatcheck girl for more than a year, Burnett landed a spot on television, playing the girlfriend of a ventriloquist’s dummy on the popular children’s program The Winchell-Mahoney Show. The role led to her appearance opposite Buddy Hackett in the short-lived sitcom, Stanley, from 1956 to 1957.
In 1957, Burnett made a name for herself on the New York circuit of cabarets and night clubs, most notably for a hit parody number called “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” which she subsequently performed on both The Tonight Show, hosted by Jack Paar, and Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town.
Burnett made her Off-Broadway debut in Once Upon a Mattress, which opened in April 1959 and moved to Broadway in November due to its tremendous popularity. That same year, she became a regular on The Garry Moore Show, a comedy variety show for which she won an Emmy in 1962. Recognizing her star potential, CBS offered her a lucrative 10-year contract. After she left Moore’s show in 1962, the network paired Burnett with fellow actress/singer Julie Andrews in a special TV production, Julie and Carol and Carnegie Hall. The show won an Emmy for Outstanding Musical, and similar specials featuring Burnett and Andrews aired in 1971 and 1989. Other projects were less successful, including the critically panned variety series The Entertainers (1964-65) and the ill-fated 1964 Broadway musical Fade Out, Fade In, which Burnett was forced to quit after sustaining a neck injury in a taxi accident. The show’s producers sued the actress for breach of contract, but the suit was later dropped.
In 1967, The Carol Burnett Show debuted as an hour-long prime-time weekly variety program on CBS, produced by her second husband, Joe Hamilton, whom she married in 1963. (Her marriage to college sweetheart Saroyan had ended in divorce in 1962.
After a shaky beginning, the show met with incredible success, becoming one of the most popular shows on TV, especially after 1972, when it moved to Saturday nights at 10:00 p.m., after the stellar CBS sitcom line-up of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show. The ensemble cast, including Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence (cast partly because of her startling likeness to a younger Burnett), Lyle Waggoner, and Tim Conway (who came aboard as a replacement for Waggoner in 1974 and met with immediate success), was led by the friendly, folksy Burnett, who took time at the end of each show to answer questions from the live studio audience. She also played a large role behind the scenes of the program, and grew to have a strong creative influence over all aspects of the show, which won a total of 22 Emmy Awards during its 11-year run. Though the final episode aired in March 1978, reruns of the show ran in syndication, as Carol Burnett and Friends.
Although Burnett also appeared in various feature films—including a well-received turn in 1978’s The Wedding, directed by Robert Altman, and an enjoyable performance in the 1984 film version of Annie—she met with far more success as a TV and stage actress. She gained considerable acclaim as a dramatic actress as well as a comedienne, but consistently maintained that comedy was the more difficult genre.
Her notable dramatic performances included roles in the 1972 film Pete ‘n Tillie, co-starring Walter Matthau, and the 1979 TV movie Friendly Fire, in which she starred as a mother whose son is killed accidentally at the hands of his fellow American soldiers in Vietnam. On stage, Burnett appeared with Rock Hudson in a touring production of I Do! I Do! during the 1970s, and in several Stephen Sondheim productions in New York and Los Angeles during the 1980s.
In 1990, Burnett starred in the short-lived TV series, Carol & Company, in which she performed with a theater repertory company in front of a live studio audience. During 1991, she also produced and starred in a new CBS variety show, also titled The Carol Burnett Show. After a long absence, she returned to Broadway in 1995, earning a Tony Award nomination for her role opposite Philip Bosco in the comedy Moon Over Buffalo. From 1996 to 1999, appeared in a recurring role on the NBC sitcom Mad About You; for her performance as the mother of lead actress Helen Hunt's character, Burnett won an Emmy Award in 1997 for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy. In 1999, she began a starring turn in Putting It Together, a revue of Sondheim songs.
Burnett, who published her autobiography, One More Time, in 1986, struck a blow against tabloid journalism in 1981, when she successfully sued the National Enquirer for libel on account of an article describing the actress’s alleged public drunkenness. The case remains a landmark in the study of libel cases involving celebrities, even though the unprecedented $1.6 million verdict (including $300,000 in personal damages and $1.3 million in “punitive” damages) was later reduced on appeal and the case was eventually settled out of court.
Burnett and Hamilton separated in 1982 and divorced in 1984; Hamilton died in 1991. Burnett had three daughters with Hamilton: Carrie, Jody, and Erin. As a teenager, Carrie, an actress who starred with her mother in the 1987 TV movie Hostage, underwent a highly publicized battle with drugs. Carrie Hamilton died of cancer-related pneumonia in January 2002. Burnett's most recent project is a Broadway production of Hollywood Arms, an autobiographical play composed by Burnett and her late daughter. The show is set to open in October 2002. Burnett, who lives in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, married musician Brian Miller in late 2001.
Did you know that Carol wanted to be a cartoonist? I did. I remember her saying that on her show when I was a kid and thought it was so cool because I was also an aspiring cartoonist at the time. Carol still draws, and quite well I might add. ~Marcella The cartoon originally came from Doodle for Hunger)