Comedy legend Carol Burnett has a lot to celebrate. The beloved TV star who entertained us with The Carol Burnett Show for over a decade (can you hear her Tarzan yell?) is turning 80 today, she just had a Hollywood square (an actual intersection next to her alma mater Hollywood High School) named in her honor, and her new book Carrie and Me has hit the New York Times bestsellers list.
The TV pioneer has already written two memoirs about her life and long career, but her latest book delves into her role as a mother and the tragedy of losing her daughter, actress Carrie Hamilton, to cancer in 2002 at the age of 38. The star opens up about her daughter’s life from being a quirky kid to her teenage struggle with drug addiction to coming into her own as a writer and performer (Carrie starred in the TV version of Fame and the 1988 cult movie Tokyo Pop) and finally, to her hard-fought battle with cancer.
It was during Carrie’s last days in the hospital, when she asked her mother to finish a story she was writing. Although she tried, Burnett couldn’t complete Carrie’s work and instead wound up writing what she calls “a mother-daughter love story” about their relationship.
We got the chance, like so many of her lucky TV audiences, to ask the star a few questions:
Happy Birthday! How are you celebrating?
Thank you! Some friends are coming up to Santa Monica where we live and we’re going out to dinner.
Carrie, Jimmy Stewart, and Burnett at the Kennedy Center Honors on Carrie’s 20th birthday in 1983. (Jack Buxbaum/J.F. Kennedy Center)
We all have our favorite characters from The Carol Burnett Show. Name yours.
I loved doing Eunice and Mrs. Wiggins and all of the movie takeoffs because I love the movies.
So many comedians, especially women, credit you as an influence. Who influenced you?
The comedians I liked were men because at the time they were the only ones with the variety shows – Sid Caesar, Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason – and then, of course, Lucy who paved the way for a lot of women.
Do you think there’s truth in the idea that there’s sadness behind every great comedian?
You know I had a little rough time growing up. We were poor, but everybody in the neighborhood was poor. I knew my grandmother loved me more than anything in the world so I think I had a happy childhood. I played all the time and my grandmother and I always went to movies. I was always optimistic because I had seen all these movies that had positive endings. Nothing was cynical in those days so I always thought, ’Okay, I’ll be fine.’
You write in Carrie and Me how you realized that Carrie might have had a harder time growing up than you?
I came to that conclusion on a plane flying to see Carrie when she was in the rehab center. I thought I admire people who are born with nothing and make something of themselves. But in a way I almost admire people more who are born with a silver spoon in their mouths and still decide to do something positive with their lives instead of sitting back and letting everything come to them.
Burnett visiting Carrie at her cabin in Colorado with Carrie’s Great Dane Pee Wee in the background, 2000.
When Carrie struggled with addiction, you learned that ‘You had to love her enough to let her hate you.’
You have to come to the conclusion that you’re not going to be their buddy, you’re going to be their parent, and you’re going to put your foot down as much as you can and love them enough to let you hate them. It’s the drugs, the dragon inside that hates you. And I realized that so I thought, ‘I’m just going to let her hate me,’ and I tricked her into going to rehab for a second time and she hated me for it until she got better.
You were one of the first celebrity families to go public with Carrie’s addiction.
At first it was a selfish motivation to go public. There are no secrets in Hollywood, and we knew we couldn’t keep it under the rug. So we decided we would go to People magazine and tell the story, and as a result everyone started to come out of the closet, so to speak, about their problems with their kids. I went on several television shows and Carrie did, too, and she talked to high school kids, not preaching, but just telling them her story. We got letters from all over the country thanking us.
You dedicated the book to your daughters Jody and Erin – what do Carrie’s sisters think about the book?
Her sisters are very happy about it. They loved Carrie very much. They were like the Three Musketeers. They were with Carrie when she died. They miss her and think about her as much as I do.
Daughters Jody, Carrie, and Erin.
What do you hope people learn about Carrie?
She was about loving people, not just your friends, but everybody. And she believed there are times when your smile is very important to people, your loved ones and strangers. God put you there to deliver it.
And what do you hope your legacy will be?
I hope people will remember that we made them laugh.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of Carol Burnett.