LEAVE IT TO OTHER SHOWBIZ LUMINARIES to fret about burgeoning thighs, encroaching crow's-feet and the ravages of time. After a TV career spanning more than two decades, Vicki Lawrence, at 43, has no such worries: "It's wonderful," she says brightly. "When people see me in person, they think I look great."

The reason, of course, is that for seven years Lawrence was encased in a Brillo-pad wig and lumpy fat suit—and hence, in the public's memory—as a grandmotherly woman with a razor-sharp tongue: the redoubtably crotchety title character of the sitcom Mama's Family.

It's a little disconcerting, therefore, to see the redhead in her current guise, lithe and bubbly, as the host of Vicki! the weekday talk show now seen on 156 stations. Gone at last is Mama's vitriol. Vicki! is earning respectable and rising Nielsen ratings and, according to Hollywood Reporter critic Rick Sherwood, "could be the talk show of the '90s...more sincere, more polite and less sensational." No aliens-ate-my-baby topics for this gal. "If you watch the other talk shows for a week, you begin to feel you're the last normal person on earth," says Lawrence. "I just wanted to have fun and talk to normal people. I grew up with Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore—and I miss that. I'd love to be the Dinah for the '90s."

Given her easy tubeside manner, it's hard to imagine the days when, as a shy 18-year-old neophyte on CBS's Carol Burnett Show (holding a prime-time reunion on CBS Jan. 10), Lawrence barely talked at all. "If I'd been Rip Van Winkle and woke up after 25 years," says her mentor, Burnett, "nothing would surprise me more than to know that Vicki has a talk show."

"Vicki was a child," recalls series regular Harvey Korman fondly, "and about as inanimate an object as you could imagine without actually being an amoeba."

The daughter of an Inglewood, Calif., accountant, Howard Lawrence, and his wife, Ann, a home-maker, teenage Vicki got her performing toehold in 1966 by sending Burnett a photograph highlighting their resemblance. After an audition, Lawrence, who had no prior acting experience, was cast as a regular on the comedian's show. Briefly enrolled as a theater major at UCLA, she spent the next 12 years (often cast as Burnett's kid sister, Chrissy) in skits opposite the likes of Bill Cosby and Red Skelton—and never regretted being a college dropout: "I went to the Harvard school of comedy, right in front of America."

At first, Lawrence admits, she was "scared to death of everybody." But, recalls Burnett: "Vicki was like a sponge. She just soaked it all in, and then, all of a sudden, she started to squirt." In 1974 she married Al Schultz, Burnett's makeup man, and went on to have two children, Courtney, now 17, and Garrett, 15. (A first marriage, at 22, to songwriter Bobby Russell resulted in Lawrence's hit rendition of Russell's The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, but her short-lived recording career ended with their "more embarrassing than painful" divorce after less than one year.)

A fallow period followed for Lawrence after the Burnett Show's demise in 1979. "I'd spent my whole adult life on television," she says. "I thought I really wanted to be Mom and be quiet." She and Al, who had become her full-time manager, sold "everything but the kids" and moved to Maui, but sheer boredom prompted the family to move back to the San Fernando Valley just a year later.

Then, in 1983, the character of Mama, spun off from a popular Burnett-show skit, was born. The acerbic grandma, says Lawrence, "is the only creation that I could totally stand back from, howl at and watch. I just loved her." Toward the end of Mama's Family's 135-episode run, Lawrence also worked as host of NBC's daytime version of Win, Lose or Draw "just to get on-camera and be seen as me for a change."

Since Hollywood evidently had her pegged as an overweight 55-year-old ("You'd think people in this town are smarter than that," she observes wryly), the Schultzes depleted their savings until Lawrence's agent successfully pitched the talk show format. And now, Lawrence, happily ensconced in her Long Beach ocean-front home with husband, kids, two springer spaniels and a 43-foot racing yacht called Camouflage, finally has a show with her name on it.

"With some people it happens sooner," says Lawrence, with her trademark grin. "It just took me longer to hit my stride."

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
STANLEY YOUNG in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Stanley Young.