Carol Burnett started in show business as an occasional stage actress, sometimes nightclub singer, and more often a hatcheck girl. After a few years barely making ends meet, 22-year-old Burnett first appeared on television in 1955, playing the dummy's romantic interest in 13 episodes of The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show, a kids' program that aired on Saturday mornings (Winchell was a ventriloquist, Mahoney was his dummy). At 23, she was cast as Buddy Hackett's girlfriend on Stanley, a NBC prime time sitcom set among workers at a hotel's newsstand, and written by Neil Simon and Woody Allen, among others. At 23½, she found herself unemployed when the program was cancelled, and for a time she worked as an usher at a Hollywood movie theater.
Burnett bounced back with a parody pop song, "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," confessing her love for the utterly unsexy, 68-year-old Secretary of State who is now best remembered as the namesake for Dulles Airport outside Washington DC. The song became a minor pop hit after Burnett sang it on Jack Paar's Tonight Show in 1957.
After that, she was a frequent panelist on the game show Pantomime Quiz. In 1959, she joined the ensemble cast of The Garry Moore Show, a popular comedy-variety hour, while concurrently starring on Broadway in the musical-comedy Once Upon a Mattress, based on the children's story The Princess and the Pea. In a memorable Twilight Zone, she played a klutzy but contented single woman offered a life of glamour by her guardian angel. She had a recurring role as a tough female Marine in Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., becoming good friends with its star Jim Nabors, who was later her traditional first guest every season on her variety show. Burnett appeared in several episodes of her friend Lucille Ball's The Lucy Show, and she was a regular on the mid-1960s variety show The Entertainers with Art Buchwald and Bob Newhart. After that show ended, Ball offered to produce a sitcom for her, but Burnett declined, fearing she might feel stifled playing the same character week after week.
Instead, Burnett and her husband, producer Joe Hamilton, crafted a variety hour around her talents. The Carol Burnett Show premiered in 1967, ran for eleven years and won 22 Emmys. Recurring sketches included the tight-skirted secretary Mrs. Wiggins, the Southern-fried bitch Eunice of Mama's Family (later spun off to its own sitcom), and the bad actress star of the soap opera parody As the Stomach Turns. There were also spoofs of classic movies, most memorably Burnett as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, wearing a dress made from the drapes -- complete with curtain rod (the dress was maniacally designed by Bob Mackie). For no particular reason, she would occasionally belt out a Tarzan yell, and at some point in every show Burnett would take questions from the audience, usually coming up with an answer that was either heartwarming or hilarious.
Burnett had perfect chemistry with her supporting cast, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, and Lyle Waggoner, and through the show's first seven seasons there were no cast changes. When Waggoner left he was replaced with Tim Conway for the eighth and subsequent seasons. The show was always funny but never mean or risqué, and in an era with only three channels, audiences of all ages tuned in to see what wacky skits Burnett would perform each week. On video, The Carol Burnett Show has been repackaged as Carol Burnett & Friends, and unlike some alleged comedy classics, no-one who rents the videos could possibly be disappointed.
She worked occasionally in feature films, including Noises Off with Michael Caine, Robert Altman's A Wedding, and The Four Seasons with Alan Alda. Her best TV films include the Vietnam survivors' drama Friendly Fire,Eunice (the pilot for Mama's Family), and three separate TV adaptations of her Broadway hit Once Upon a Mattress in 1964, 1972, and 2005.
In 1986 she starred in Fresno, a six-hour mini-series spoofing Dallas and Dynasty, with Burnett as Fresno's hard-drinking raisin matriarch Charlotte Kensington. With Charles Grodin, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, and Gregory Harrison, it was funny to the finish, but has never been released on video in America.
In 1990 she starred in Carol & Company with Jeremy Piven and Peter Krause, an anthology series with a half-hour comedy skit each week, but it was quickly cancelled. In 1991 she revived her Carol Burnett Show in name and format but with a new supporting cast. . Later in the 1990s, she played Helen Hunt's mother on Mad About You.
Her second husband, Joe Hamilton, had been a jazz musician, but after marrying Burnett he produced most of her starring projects. Their daughter, Carrie Hamilton became an actress, starring in the TV movie Hostage with Burnett and in touring productions of Rent, before dying of lung cancer in 2002. Another daughter, Erin Hamilton, has had several hits on the dance charts, including covers of "Dream Weaver" and Cheap Trick's "The Flame."
By virtually all accounts, the good-natured wise-cracking Burnett seen on her variety show was the real Carol Burnett. Her beloved grandmother, Mae Eudora Jones White, died in 1967 at the age of 82, but Burnett never stopped tugging her ear at the end of every episode. In the show's third season, Burnett received a résumé from a 10-year-old fan who wanted a career in comedy -- Jim Carrey, who received a long, personal letter of encouragement from Burnett. When she received her star on Hollywood Boulevard, Burnett had it placed in front of the theater where she had been an usher. And in 1989, when Burnett's friend Lucille Ball died suddenly on Burnett's birthday, Burnett received a bouquet from Ball several hours after hearing the sad news -- Ball had ordered the flowers in advance for Burnett's birthday.
Hamilton, her husband, wrote the theme song for The Carol Burnett Show, which she sang at the end of every episode. "I'm so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song, seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say, 'So long.'" And then Burnett would wave and shout, "Good night, everybody."