Alcoholic parents. A drug-addicted daughter. Divorce. And now, her daughter's death from cancer.
The trials in Carol Burnett's life are definitely not the stuff of comedy. Nonetheless, Burnett's humor-driven resilience has carried her through a spectacular career as one of America's most beloved comic actresses.
Burnett established herself as the queen of television comedy during the 1970s, leading a hilarious ensemble cast in The Carol Burnett Show, a variety show that ran for 11 years on CBS. During that run, Burnett and cast regulars Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway put together a sketch comedy show that garnered a phenomenal 22 Emmy Awards.
Each show ended, with Burnett's closing song and her trademark goodnight — a gentle tug on her ear. Burnett says she began that signature signoff at the start of her television career as a secret way to say "Hello, I love you" to her grandmother, Nanny, who raised her.
It's been a generation since Burnett's variety show went off the air in 1979, but the success of her recent television special — which drew a phenomenal audience of 30 million — showed just how much America still loves Burnett's classic sketch characters, sight gags, and endearing, innocent silliness.
A Daughter's Struggle
Burnett recalls the years on the set of her weekly show in the 1970s as a wonderful time. Her three daughters — Carrie, Jody and Erin Hamilton — practically grew up on the set, she says. But while Burnett was having a blast with Conway, Korman and Carr on the set, she was grappling with some serious personal problems at home. Her marriage to producer Joe Hamilton was in trouble, and the couple ended up divorcing in 1984. And Carrie, her eldest daughter, had become heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol when she was just 13 years old.
When she became aware of Carrie's addiction, Burnett blamed herself. "I thought … was there something I should have seen, something I should have known, something I would have spotted? You know, what did I miss? Was I not strong enough?"
Carrie's battle with addiction was a four-year struggle. With Burnett's help, she ultimately won that battle. One of Burnett's closest friends, opera singer Beverly Sills, remembers Carrie as a sweet girl who went through a tough, rebellious adolescence and felt that her mother's stardom was a burden. Sills recalls Carrie telling her, "It's not easy being Carol Burnett's daughter."
As Burnett helped Carrie battle, and ultimately triumph, over addiction, the two became closer than ever.
Like Burnett, Carrie grew up to be an actress. While Burnett performed Stephen Sondheim music on Broadway; Carrie performed in the rock opera Rent. While Burnett played Helen Hunt's high-strung mom on Mad About You; Carrie portrayed a struggling young performer on Fame.
Their artistic paths diverged until Carrie suggested they collaborate on a very special project. She proposed writing a fictionalized play based on her mother's 1986 autobiography, One More Time.
With Carrie's rebellious teenage years and her painful addictions behind them, Burnett had developed a new respect for Carrie as a writer. Finally, they were working as equals on a project close to their hearts.
Burnett's story is a classic rags-to-riches tale. Her difficult childhood was marked by alcoholic parents, their divorce when she was 4 years old, her upbringing in a rundown, one-room apartment with Nanny, and the fantasy life she created for herself on the rooftop of her apartment building.
Burnett said she wrote her story because she wanted her children to understand the circumstances of her childhood. Carrie found her mother's story so moving that she wanted to take the story to the stage. So she wrote the play Hollywood Arms, currently being performed at Chicago's Goodman Theater, to tell her mom's story.
As bittersweet as the story is, the play also captures the humor that always loomed large in Burnett's life. Burnett admits that a lot of her childhood "sounds awful," but says: "There was a lot of humor. My mother was very witty and beautiful, and, uh, Nanny was funny as hell."
The Next Battle — Cancer
In August 2001, Carrie, a longtime smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Initially, Carrie had checked in and out of Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles as she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, keeping her sense of humor even as she lost her hair. There seemed to be glimpses of hope that the cancer was receding, and that perhaps Carrie had triumphed over cancer the way she had beaten drugs and alcohol.
And Burnett decided to get married again. After 20 years of being single, she married musician Brian Miller. As Burnett was enjoying the new comfort and stability of married life, casting was getting under way for Hollywood Arms, a project Burnett and Carrie hoped would be just the start of a long-running mother-daughter collaboration.
But then came the news that changed Burnett's life. In November 2001, Carrie learned that her lung cancer had spread to her brain.
Like her mom, Carrie relied on humor to help her through her battle. "Carrie had a spirit about her, all through her treatments," Burnett says. When Carrie had a relapse and went back into the hospital, she told her mom she "missed the food."
"We both started to howl," Burnett says.
In her final weeks of life, Carrie helped her mother in casting decisions for the play. And in her last days, Carrie and her mom had a chance to talk again about their rough years, and Carrie actually apologized to her mom for smoking.
Carrie Hamilton died on Jan. 20 of this year. She was 38 years old. Hollywood Arms opened to positive reviews in Chicago three months later.
Hal Prince, who is directing Hollywood Arms, said: "The show is about love. It is not a dysfunctional family show. It's about somebody who came out of all that turmoil — a difficult childhood — and emerged triumphantly."
Burnett says she feels that Carrie is right there with her at the Goodman Theater. After Carrie's death, when she was preparing for rehearsals in March, Burnett asked her daughter to give her a sign that she was with her. She said Carrie gave her that sign — loud and clear.
Burnett says when she and her husband checked into their Chicago hotel, they saw a huge floral arrangement of Birds of Paradise in the lobby. "That was Carrie's favorite flower," Burnett says.
The next night a waiter offered Burnett and her party a bottle of champagne. Burnett says, "He showed the label and the label said 'Louise.' Now, that's Carrie's middle name, it was the name of my mother. And I thought, 'Carrie, you're not subtle at all.'"
Losing Carrie has been a devastating blow to Burnett, but she seems comforted by their collaboration on Hollywood Arms. "It was her legacy. Or one of them. And it's all her doing."
Does Burnett still say goodnight to her audiences with a tug on her ear? Yes. But now, she says, she's doing it for Nanny — and for Carrie.