But as she sits in a cozy red den with a gaslit fireplace at night, it's clear Fisher's approach to decor is more oddball than opulent: There's a papier-mâché pig and a fun-house mirror on the porch, a moosehead over a mantel, a live exotic bird perched bedside, a jukebox, and an ancient-seeming epigraph across an archway. "It's Latin," Fisher says matter-of-factly, "for 'She'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes.' I got it off the Internet." In fact, Fisher's inexhaustible comic flair isn't just a living, it's a lifeline. "If I didn't have a sense of humor, I wouldn't make it," she says.
She's serious. Fisher almost didn't make it 3½ years ago: A "psychotic break" tied to her long battle with manic depression landed her in a mental ward and stalled her career as a top comedy-script doctor who has polished film screenplays including Sister Act and The Wedding Singer. "I live by my wits," she says, "and my wits weren't by me."
But they are now. She cowrote ABC's campy bitchfest These Old Broads, airing Feb. 12, and aided by a half-dozen medications has her life on an even keel. Single mother to daughter Billie, 8, by ex-lover Bryan Lourd, 40, an agent, Fisher has settled into I amicable coparenthood. But like the decor, little in her life is standard issue. Their split was no exception: When Billie was an infant, Lourd left Carrie for another man. There are no hard feelings. "I didn't feel like he took advantage of me," says Carrie. "I picked him, you know." Says Lourd: "Carrie's the funniest, most caring mom I know. And original beyond belief."
In Broads, which stars Joan Collins, 67, Elizabeth Taylor, 68, Shirley MacLaine, 66, and Fisher's mother, Debbie Reynolds, 68, the divas dish and vamp through a 40-year-reunion plot that makes mischievous use of their real-life personas. "They could've called it The Perfect Storm," quips Fisher. But no, as Broads wrapped, Taylor gave her antique earrings and a watch. It became, Carrie says, "a love fest."
That was hardly the way it was between Liz and Debbie in Fisher's childhood. Carrie Frances Fisher was born on Oct. 21, 1956, in Los Angeles. Her parents were a much-adored '50s power couple: Heartthrob crooner Eddie Fisher had some 40 hits in the pre-rock era; Reynolds, a friend of Taylor's at MGM's school for actors, had starred in Singin' in the Rain in 1952, Bundle of Joy with Fisher in 1956 and, a year later, Tammy and the Bachelor. When Taylor's third husband, producer Mike Todd (Eddie's best buddy), died in a March 1958 plane crash, Debbie recalls, "I took Elizabeth's children to my house for three weeks and sent Eddie to comfort her. I didn't know he'd stay." The Liz & Eddie affair—and subsequent marriage—was, Debbie says, "one of the scandals of all time." (She says she and Liz made peace many years ago.)
Carrie says she "longed for" her distant father, who for years abused drugs and booze; she says he is also manic-depressive. He says no. "I love Carrie dearly," says Eddie, 72, "but for her to include me in her problem—and put a label on me—is nonsense." Reynolds, who was roughed up—"a self-centered, totally driven, insecure, untruthful phony"—in Eddie's 1999 memoir Been There, Done That, has a label of her own: "He was the sperm of my children, not their father." ("Attractive," says Carrie.) Neither she nor brother Todd (named for Mike Todd), 42, who works on his mother's costume-collection project, speak to him because of the book. At 12, Carrie joined her mother's Las Vegas act, then left Beverly Hills High at 15 to perform with her on Broadway in Irene. She studied at London's Central School of Speech and Drama before shooting her film debut, at 17, as a nymphet who beds her mother's coiffeur (Warren Beatty) in 1975's Shampoo. Offscreen, Beatty was less lucky. "He offered to alleviate the burden of my virginity," says Fisher. "I declined."
It was her role as Princess Leia Organa in George Lucas's 1977 Stars Wars that shot Fisher into Hollywood hyperspace; the eventual trilogy made her more than $5 million. "There's no preparing for that," she says. "It made some of my life seem silly—all the toys and Leia stuff."
Fisher was soon in her own orbit, taking up to 30 tablets a day of the painkiller Percodan. Her addiction, she says, was less about getting high than lowering the voltage of her manic jags—a brain-chemistry imbalance, called hypomania, that wasn't diagnosed until she kicked drugs in the mid-'80s. Fisher turned her drug saga into the sardonically comic 1987 memoir Postcards from the Edge, later writing the screenplay for the 1990 movie starring Meryl Streep.
Both before and after rehab, doctors tried to balance her moods with medication; it was, she says, "a crap-shoot." Her blue-streak humor allowed her to surf tsunamis of manic energy. Fisher describes the sensation as "liquid confidence—you're up all night. Everything you say is brilliant and funny." Two symptoms not covered by insurance: compulsive shopping and impulsive travel (India, Nepal, China, the Middle East). "She'd just take off," says her mother. "She'd forget money, forget her passport." Fisher did a TV movie in Paris just so she could blow her fee in Left Bank boutiques. Says friend and Simpsons writer David Mirkin: "We once went to Barneys. She was like a tornado." Explains Fisher: "You just can't stop yourself. You can't tell yourself it's bad. There's a $25,000 lamp on the piano." Gift-giving was an extreme sport. She could spend as much as $150,000 at Christmas; she bought a $50,000 sable coat and a custom black BMW for her mom—though Debbie didn't like sports cars. "The good news," says Todd, "was Mom gave it to me for a while." The bad news, says Carrie, was "I didn't always have the money for this stuff. I never made enough to retire."
After Postcards, writing became Fisher's day job. "I never wanted to be an actor," she says. "I don't like my looks. I was always more a personality. Writing fit more into who I thought I was." Yet her personality didn't always fit into who she was with, particularly during her long on-off relationship with pop icon Paul Simon. (They were introduced by his ex Shelley Duvall in the late '70s.) Fisher says her mood swings were to blame, in part, for the roller coaster: "You can't stay put, you can't go." They married in 1983 and split 11 months later—then dated for a time as divorces. "We stimulated each other into insanity," she says. (Simon declined to comment.)
By 1990 Fisher was "on the rebound" with Lourd. "He was kind, easy to be with, he took care of me," she says. "He seemed in love and I thought he'd be a good father." By 1993, after Lourd left, "I was a disaster," she says. "Whatever Bryan hoped would change in him didn't."
Fisher's script-doctor career—reworking comedy dialogue for big bucks and no credit—was thriving, but as her illness swung toward depression in 1997, a new doctor changed drugs, triggering an allergic reaction. Admitted to Cedars-Sinai, she was taken off all medication and, she says, "my mind disintegrated. I snapped." She talked nonstop and had to sign herself into Cedars' psychiatric "lockup." The ranting lasted six sleepless days and nights—some of it, says Todd, brutally amusing: "It was Don Rickles kind of stuff—ripping everyone to shreds." (Reynolds couldn't bear to come, so Todd held up a phone for her to hear what was happening.)
At first, sedation failed. "I had this sense that if I fell asleep I would die," says Fisher, "and if I stayed awake I would die." Hallucinating, Fisher saw a "beautiful golden light" glowing from her head, decoded "secret messages" in movies and believed news events on TV were about her. Lourd helped hold things together for Billie and was at Carrie's side through her monthlong stay. "He came through," says Reynolds. "He's a good father, a fine man." Says Lourd of Fisher's condition: "It became clear the disease was much bigger than she was. I realized she was helpless." After sedation finally brought Fisher down, she spent about half a year in outpatient care.
These days Fisher is anchored by the routines of motherhood, deadlines (she's just written an HBO project), friendships with pals like Penny Marshall, Meg Ryan, Mirkin and Streep and nonstop e-mails to "the village inside my computer." Fisher sits on her bed and writes well into the night. Though she's rarely awake when her nanny gets Billie off to third grade, Fisher drives her to skating and French lessons and plays with her on the computer. She, Billie and Lourd also go to movies, travel and hang out together. By all accounts, Billie, who splits her time equally between her parents, is well-adjusted to their lives. "She's asked me whatever she needed to know [about Lourd's lifestyle]," says Fisher. "This is not uncommon anymore. Kids just want to know the parents have a good relationship and that you love them. Period."
For years Fisher has been skittish about dating and getting involved. "I miss it," she admits. "I don't seem to get this right. It's not something I want to keep running at and getting hurt by. I don't need a lot of personality on top of mine, as it were."
But Fisher says she is strong enough now to contact fellow ex-patients to help her reconstruct her "ascent into madness"—perhaps to write postcards from over the edge. It's one real-life script she knows has already been doctored enough. "That was a wild ride," Fisher says. "I'm more down to size now."