The gown was sequined and slithery, not exactly the kind of attire most women would wear at the sink. But that wouldn't stop Carol Burnett. Arriving home from a party one night, she found dirty dishes in the kitchen and promptly kicked off her heels. Slipping into her scuffs (you know, the kind crabby Eunice might wear on Burnett's old show), Carol carefully washed, dried and put away the plates. All in her Bob Mackie finery.
Accessible glamour, that's Carol Burnett. At home or performing, this ability to be both down-home and a star has long endeared her to both fans and friends. Consider her performance this week in the six-hour mini-series Fresno on CBS. Burnett plays lofty Charlotte Kensington, the matriarch of a family of California raisin producers who have come up with a recipe to encapsulate the bran in the raisin, thus putting new fiber into their finances. Flouncing around in a parade of ridiculous hats, bedecked in the kind of silk and fur-trimmed getups the ladies might wear at breakfast on Dallas, she still manages to be good old Carol. Beneath the chapeaus behind the bons mots, is that same wide-eyed mobile face, that sense of comic timing carefully sharpened through 11 years on The Carol Burnett Show. "I'm in hog heaven," says Burnett, 53, about her latest TV appearance. "It's one of the funniest scripts I've ever read."
Burnett was attracted to Fresno the moment she heard that it had been conceived as an unabashed parody of evening soaps like Dallas and Falcon Crest. A devotee of daytime's All My Children, Carol couldn't resist the story about a family of malevolently lusty raisin producers and all their gripes of wrath.
During filming last summer in the 100°-plus heat of Fresno, Calif., crowds loitered in hopes of catching a glimpse of Burnett. "If there is someone more popular in this country than Carol Burnett," says Charles Grodin, who plays her evil son, Cane, on the show, "I would like to know who that is." Certainly there was no one more popular with her fellow cast members. Burnett is the kind of actress who knows every crew member by name, and she has been known to ask the prop man how his dog is. After 16-hour days on the set of Fresno, the only sign of fatigue that Carol evinced was a telltale drooping eyelid. "She was never moody or temperamental," says Teri Garr, who plays her scheming daughter-in-law. "She inspired us all."
In Hollywood, where such accolades don't generally flow with the white wine at Spago, there seems to be something approaching adoration for Burnett. "She is a phenomenally determined and dedicated human being," says Elizabeth Taylor. "More important, I love her as a dear friend." Vicki Lawrence, a regular on Burnett's old show, observes, "There are a lot of big egos in this business, but that's not Carol's trip."
If there is a dark side to Burnett, few people know it. Tim Conway, another regular on The Carol Burnett Show, reflects that "there may be a lot of pain in her body, but she doesn't turn a spigot and let it all pour out."
But something has come out recently—and that's the moving story of her past that Burnett reveals in her best-selling autobiography, One More Time (Random House, $18.95). Naturally Carol did it herself without the help of any fancy ghostwriter. In a breathless, disjointed style that can be both charming and maddening, Burnett tells of growing up in a poor part of Hollywood not far from where Nathanael West set The Day of the Locust. "I've never been rolfed," says Burnett, "but going through all that again was like an emotional rolfing. Once I got through it, which was not that easy, and came out the other side, the release was enormous."
From all accounts, Burnett has come out of the experience a different person. Her actress-daughter Carrie, a cast member on Fame, says that in her mother's pre-literary days, she repressed her feelings. "She'd hold things in and pull down the shades. But she's become a lot more spontaneous." The author doesn't demur. "If something's bothering me, I've learned to say so at the time, so that there's not a buildup of feelings," Burnett reports. "I'm much better than when I used to just disappear into the woodwork."
At the time Carol began her book in 1983, she was still adjusting to life as a single woman. Burnett and second husband Joe Hamilton, the father of Carrie, 22, Jody, 19, and Erin, 18, had divorced the year before. "It worked out fine for 20 years. I don't consider that a flop," says Burnett, who tries to be philosophical. "You go into another life. There's a lot of talk about reincarnation, but we do it all our lives. I'm not the same person I was at 15 or 25 or 35. If you stay where you are because you're frightened, that can be tough, too. Go for what you want."
What Burnett found she wanted at this painful time was to re-examine her past. She often told stories about her eccentric but loving grandmother to friend and sometime escort Peter Feibleman, a writer who once co-authored a cookbook with Lillian Hellman. "Write a page a day," he told her, "and at the end of 365 days you'll have what is called a book." Burnett took him literally. She interviewed relatives, pored through old clips and letters and holed up for weeks at a time writing in hotels or friends' houses. "I didn't realize you don't go around saying things like that to Carol," admits Feibleman, "because she'll do it. She has the kind of iron discipline and stick-to-itiveness to complete an assignment, so you better be careful what you assign."
Once Burnett had finished 100 pages, she showed her efforts to Feibleman, who excitedly rushed them to a top editor at Random House. He immediately said the company would publish the manuscript. "I was very flattered," says Burnett. "They gave me the courage to admit it was a b-b-b-book. It's not a celebrity book. It's not racy. It's not sensational."
Rather, there are touches of Edward Albee, Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm in Burnett's poignant account of how a shy, gawky and impoverished girl became a star. Her father, Jody, who never held a steady job, and her mother, Louise, an aspiring journalist, both became alcoholics. They separated when Carol was about 5, and she was left in the hands of her maternal grandmother, hypochondriacal "Nanny," who lived in a squalid one-room apartment surrounded by old newspapers and grocery bags. Nanny collected welfare and was not above lifting silverware from the lunch counter of the local drugstore. Carol's mother lived down the hall and constantly squabbled with Nanny. When Carol was 11, her mother shamed the family by giving birth to an illegitimate daughter, Chris.
Somehow, in the midst of all this bickering and low drama, Carol managed to grow into a secure, levelheaded young woman who knew what she wanted. "There must be some good genes there," says her half-sister, Chris Frauchiger, who lives with her husband and son in Honolulu. "Carol and I both are leading positive lives, and we're not warped or bitter."
Carol worked her way through UCLA, where she majored in theater arts. One day she was invited along with other students to perform at a society party in San Diego. A local businessman there was struck by Burnett's talent and gave her $1,000 to advance her career. She promised she would never disclose his name, and of course she hasn't.
With his backing, Burnett was able to go to New York to audition, all the while holding on to her dreams of becoming a great comedienne. When an agent flippantly told her to go out and put on her own show, she did so, marshaling unemployed actors and writers to join her in a revue that ran for three days at a Manhattan concert hall in 1955. The same year Burnett married her college beau, aspiring director Don Saroyan. (They separated five years later.) Eventually she landed several appearances on Garry Moore's morning show, and in 1959 Burnett made her Broadway debut in Once Upon a Mattress. She was 26.
So begins Burnett's career; so concludes her book. Someday, perhaps, she will write Volume II. The sequel would also be filled with highs and lows. There is, for example, the great success of The Carol Burnett Show, with all its crazy, klutzy characters. (The show is now in syndicated reruns as Carol Burnett and Friends.) Presumably there would also be references to her rumored separations from Hamilton over the years and her 1976 libel suit against the National Enquirer. Burnett, who was incensed by an article that said she had been seen drunk in a Washington restaurant, won an undisclosed sum in the settlement.
One of Carol's bleakest moments came in 1977 when Carrie, then 13, began abusing drugs and alcohol. "I was a rebellious teenager and she was a scared mother," says Carrie of this period. After seeking help in two treatment centers, Carrie overcame her addictions. Mother and daughter are considering telling the story of this traumatic time in a book they would write together.
Burnett maintains close ties to all three daughters. Carrie, besides appearing on Fame, sings backup in a rock group. Jody is a college junior in California, and Erin is a freshman at an Eastern college. Carol wrote the book, she says in a forward, so that her daughters would know "just how your mom turned out to be the kind of hairpin she is."
Burnett certainly didn't need to write a book to get that message across. Carol has her idiosyncrasies, all right, and one of them is the same fanatic cleanliness that made her do the dishes in her party dress. "I know I'll be healthy if I can walk through a room and leave a dirty sock lying on the floor, or leave a dish in the sink," she says. "It's just a 10-cent analysis, but I'm still cleaning up the room I shared with Nanny. The chaos spurred me on. You're the result of your environment, and you can either copy it or go 180 degrees away from it. My result was to be organized. People invite me to dinner not because I cook, but because I like to clean up. I get immediate gratification from Windex. Yes, I do windows."
These days Burnett is trying to be less compulsive. Enamored of her new trade, she's contemplating something more free-form: a novel about how women survived in her grandmother's day. That's not to say that she intends to forsake acting. Burnett has an ABC comedy special featuring Carl Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams coming out in January. She also wants to co-produce and star in a film based on Feibleman's novella, Fever, about a New Orleans madam during World War II.
Carol credits Feibleman, 56, with helping her learn to stand up for herself. She counts Peter as one of four or five men she has dated since her divorce, but she isn't seeing anyone right now. "There's been nothing serious yet," says Burnett, "nothing like a lifelong marriageable commitment." Besides, she adds, "the assumption that one has to be dating to be a fulfilled person is just so much prattle."
To listen to Burnett's family, Carol has found a good measure of fulfillment of late. "She has always handled tough situations through other people," says Hamilton. "Now that she wants to be her own person, she's doing some of those things herself." For a long time after her divorce Burnett was "living out of suitcases," but at last she has settled in her own place in Pacific Palisades. She delightedly calls the Cape Cod-style home her "Mrs. Miniver house." Armed with Windex, a take-out dinner from a nearby French delicatessen and a good book, she's in bliss. "Now that I'm here at home," she says, "I like to be here." Observes Carrie: "She's giddy. Almost like a kid. It was a big exhale for her to move into her own place. She's gotten rid of a lot of excess baggage, a lot of crap, like a snake shedding her skin. She's got a whole new life."
- Lois Armstrong.