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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Carol Burnett On Her Life Of Singing, Dancing And Making People Laugh

In the first few episodes of Apple TV+ series Palm Royale, Carol Burnett is entirely horizontal. And rightly so, since her character Norma Dellacorte in a coma. Fortunately though, Norma recovers in time to rip through some seriously juicy scenes with Kristin Wiig, who names Burnett, who turned 91 in April, as her career inspiration. “When they told me who was going to be in it,” says Burnett, “Kristen Wiig and Allison Janney and Laura Dern and Ricky Martin and Julia Duffy, I said, ‘I don’t care what it is. I want to be a part of it.’” From Burnett’s early days hosting long-running comedy-variety series The Carol Burnett Show, to films like A Wedding, Annie and Mad About You, to Better Call Saul, she has blazed a trail, garnering seven Emmys, a Tony and a Grammy along the way. Here, she recalls some favorite memories, picks her best karaoke song and reveals who should play her in her biopic.

Carol Burnett interview

Carol Burnett with Garry Moore in The Garry Moore Show.

Curt Gunther/TV Guide/Everett Collection

My First Screen Lesson

I was doing The Garry Moore Show. I was in my 20s, and I was second banana on the show. There was also another second banana on the show, Durward Kirby. I remember sitting around reading the script for that week coming up, and Garry would say, if he had a joke or punchline or something, “You know what? Give this to Carol or give this to Durward. They can say it funnier than I can.” That’s how generous a star he was. He said, “I want my people, everybody to score, and it only makes the show better.” I took that lesson to my own show. Yes, it said The Carol Burnett Show, but there were times when I’d be supporting Harvey [Korman], or I’d be supporting Tim [Conway], or Vicki [Lawrence] would be supporting me. It was a true rep company.

The Best Advice I Have Ever Received

Some of the old adages like, “This too shall pass.” If something isn’t going well, you know that it can turn on a dime and get better. That’s what I always try to think. If something’s not going well, that doesn’t mean it’s going to always be that way.

The Part I Always Wanted

Well, I can’t do it because of my age, but way back, I would’ve loved to have done Mame, the musical. I love that. I love the music. I love the part. And it just never came up that I would have the opportunity to do it. It’s very well written and it’s funny and she’s way over the top, and the music, the songs. There were some wonderful, wonderful numbers. That’s something that, when I was younger, I wish I’d had the time to do, even if it was just in summer stock.

Carol Burnett interview

Burnett with Pat McCormick in A Wedding.

20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

The Most Fun I’ve Had On Set

I think maybe the most fun was when I worked for Robert Altman, and it was called A Wedding. He created an atmosphere. It was almost like you were at recess at school. Before we started shooting, he was telling us the plot, and there were about 25 of us in the cast and he said, “If you ever have an idea about your character or a scene that you want, I want you to come to me with it because some of my best scenes were written by some of my actors.” You never hear that from a director. One of the best scenes, he said, in the movie is when Pat McCormick and I — I’m the mother of the bride — are dancing at the reception and he starts to come on to me. Pat and I had an idea for it, and we went to Bob and he said, “OK, go write it.”

The Films That Make Me Cry

Oh, I’m a sucker. As much as I know it’s acting, and I’ve been on set, and I’ve been in movies and everything, I get very caught up in stories and I believe them, and I suspend all belief about, well, I know what they’re doing here in this scene. And always, I cry at It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s my favorite movie and Jimmy Stewart was my favorite actor. And I got to know him. We became friends, and he said that was his favorite movie that he did. And it was Frank Capra’s favorite movie that he directed. I watch it every Christmas and I cry every time, even though I know what’s coming.

My Most Quoted Role

A lot of times people come up to me if we’re out to dinner or something and they want to come by the table, they’ll say, “I’m so glad we had this time together.” Which is my closing song [from The Carol Burnett Show], so maybe they’re quoting me. And they’ll wave and tug their earlobe. [My grandmother] wanted me to, the first time I was on television, to say hello to her, and I said, “They’re not going to let me say hello, but I’ll pull my ear and that means hello and I love you.”

Carol Burnett interview

Burnett with Ned Beatty in Friendly Fire.

ABC Everett Collection

My Toughest Challenge

I would say Friendly Fire. That was a very well received, dramatic, true-life story that was based on the book. I was very surprised when they asked me to do it because it was a very serious role and it was playing a woman who’d existed, who lost her son in friendly fire. It was a challenge for me, not to do it so much, but to hope that people would accept me as something other than a comedian. And luckily, I had a good director, David Greene, and the writing was sensational. Both Ned Beatty and I, we were nominated for Emmys. That was kind of a turning point for me, where people would start to accept me as an all-around entertainer and not just a comedian.

My Guilty Pleasure

Turner Classic Movies. Every day I go to that station to see if there’s something I want to TiVo. And it’s usually some old movie that I loved or knew when I was a kid and I want to revisit it. I love the old movies. I love everything in black and white. There are certain classic movie stars that existed then, the likes of which I haven’t seen since. When you think of a Jimmy Stewart or a Cary Grant or Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, I could reel off all of those and there’s nobody today that is like that. There’s some wonderful actors and actresses, and very talented, but there’s something about the ’40s, when I was growing up. Maybe it’s because I’m this old, but there’s a difference.

Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Emmy Comedy magazine here.

Who’d Play Me In My Biopic

I have been asked this before, and I always say, Angelina Jolie. And Kristen [Wiig] would be wonderful because she could do it all.

My Karaoke Playlist

“Here’s That Rainy Day”. I love that song. I remember the first time I ever heard it, Nat King Cole was singing it and it was just so beautiful. And when I had my show, I remember I asked Mel Tormé to sing it on my show, and I asked Steve Lawrence to sing it on my show. It was so beautiful. And I understand it was Johnny Carson’s favorite song. The last show he did, Bette Midler came on and she sang “Here’s That Rainy Day” to him, it was so sweet.

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