Once Carol Burnett's Kid Sister, Vicki Lawrence Is Now Head of the Household on Mama's Family

updated 03/21/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1983 01:00AM

After 11 years as sidekick-in-residence on The Carol Burnett Show, Vicki Lawrence moved to Hawaii, where she planned to sail, drink Mai-Tais and "borrow cups of sugar" from good buddy Carol, who had settled across the street. But Lawrence's hoped-for bliss turned into blah. Even the weather, she recalls, got boring. The solution was to work. "But in Hawaii I was out of sight and out of mind. I might as well have been dead." The stress, Vicki admits, "led to a case of mid-life acne. My dermatologist said, 'Have you been near any plants that were pollinating lately?' I said, 'Who the hell asks them?' "

Today the acne is gone. At 33, Vicki has discovered the cure that comes in a tube: her own TV show. As the bickering matriarch of NBC's Mama's Family, Lawrence presides weekly over the half-daft Middle American kaffeeklatsch that began as a sketch on Burnett's show in 1974. These days 48-year-old Carol's just the occasional guest as Mama's daughter Eunice; it's Vicki's show. She's enjoying her role, but admits, "After playing an old bag every week, I may go berserk and want to pose for Playboy."

Vicki credits Burnett with "every wonderful thing that's happened to me in my adult life." To stay friends, they've avoided talking business, but Vicki calls Joe Hamilton, the show's executive producer and Burnett's estranged husband, "a tough negotiator." Hamilton hired her for the Burnett show when she was 18. "I wasn't in a position to ask for anything, so I got the shaft," Vicki says. After five years on the show, she says, she was making about $800 a week. Later, with Mama's Family, "I played hard to get—I was hard to get—and I received a good deal. I'm finally learning how to act like a star."

At least, Lawrence had the advantage of being raised in L.A. Her father was a CPA; her mother, she has said, "pushed me." In high school she looked so much like Burnett that local papers took notice. Vicki sent the clippings to Carol with a fan letter. A year later Burnett chose Lawrence to play her kid sister over dozens of more experienced performers. "The whole thing," says Vicki, "was based on Carol's intuition."

For a while it seemed wrong. Vicki thought of herself as "incredibly lousy." She tried studying drama at UCLA but was forced to drop out because she missed too many classes. Instead, she says, "I got my education in front of the whole country." But she learned. She won an Emmy in the show's ninth season.

There were other false starts. At 23, Vicki became Mrs. Bobby Russell, but her marriage to the country songwriter, she says, "lasted about 10 minutes." Luckily, that was enough time for her to record Russell's song The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia. The record climbed to No. 1 on the charts.

In 1975 romance blossomed between Vicki and Al Schultz, a CBS makeup man, who continued to do her face until the show went off the air. "You'd think he'd be a real moose, but he's got a gentle touch," she says of her 220-pound husband, now 41. "Who else could be so good in bed, then put your lashes back on in the morning?"

Al has retired from doing makeup (except for occasional jobs on gals like Lena Home and Peggy Lee) to work full-time handling their finances. Right now he's struggling to hold onto their Hawaiian condo. Doing so depends on whether the ratings (currently iffy) indicate Mama's Family should go back into production. "NBC," observes Vicki, "apparently does not care about our next month's payments."

In the L.A. area, they own a home behind the walls of Hidden Hills, a ritzy community that Vicki calls "a little Peyton Place." Their house being one of the smaller on the block, Vicki doesn't need live-in help, and so "can run around naked in the middle of the night if I want to."

Most mornings she drives her Porsche to the local health club to keep her 5'6" frame at 115 pounds. Al comes separately in his Rolls. "You drive up in that, and they know you mean business," says Vicki. Afternoons she takes Garrett, 5, to ball games and Courtney, 7, to dance lessons. "I try to keep my children's lives down to earth," Vicki claims, adding wryly, "but down to earth today is fabulous."

Among the things the couple have to look forward to is the new racing sloop being built for them—a 45-footer they will call Prime Time if Mama's Family makes it. If it doesn't? Cracks Vicki, "People ask me, 'What was the worst time of your life?' I usually have to look at my watch to answer."

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