Inside Carol Burnett’s sad life
The Carol Burnett Show remains one of the most beloved and fondly remembered TV series of the 1960s and 1970s, while star Carol Burnett has carved out an indelible spot in the pantheon of the funniest comedic presences of the 20th century. A primetime staple for more than a decade, Burnett’s one-hour variety show leaned heavily into sketch comedy, showcasing its star’s gift for impersonations and physical comedy to enjoy an impressive 11-season run on CBS. The television icon, who celebrated her 87th birthday in April 2020, has earned scads of accolades over the course of her career, including a Golden Globes award that was literally named after her.
While Burnett’s millions of fans tuned in so she could make them laugh, behind her innate gift for comedy lurked an underlying sadness that few — certainly not the viewers who watched each week — could have imagined. Beginning with a childhood steeped in tragedy, sadness is something that Burnett could never escape, regardless of how much wealth, fame and success she managed to achieve.
The cliché of the sad clown who laughs on the outside while crying on the inside holds more than a little truth when it comes to this multitalented actor, comedian, playwright, and author. For more insight, keep on reading for an even deeper look inside Carol Burnett’s sad life.
Alcoholism marred Carol Burnett's childhood
Carol Burnett was born in 1933 in San Antonio, Texas, during the Great Depression. A few years after Burnett’s birth, her parents, Joseph and Ina Louise Burnett, headed west to Los Angeles in search of a better life. “My parents came to Hollywood from Texas, and left me there with my grandmother. They were hoping that they were going to strike it big out here in Hollywood,” she recalled in an interview with NPR. “And then they divorced. And so my grandmother and I followed my mother out to Hollywood in 1940.”
As Burnett recalled in her 2011 autobiography This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, her parents were big drinkers and low earners. “He had a drinking problem, but he was a good-natured drunk,” Burnett wrote of her father. Since he “wasn’t sober long enough to hold down a steady job,” the family was forced to rely on government assistance to get by.
“It was not a pleasant childhood,” Burnett told UPI in 1986, but admitted there were many who had it worse than she did. “There are some that were happier and some that have been really miserable,” she explained. “Mine was not miserable.”
Carol Burnett learned she couldn't 'fix' her parents
Even as a young child, Carol Burnett could see that her parents’ drinking was problematic. As she told People in 2018, she blamed herself and felt it was her responsibility to try to get them to stop boozing. “I thought they could [quit] if they wanted to,” she said, but ultimately came to a life-changing realization: “You can’t fix it.”
This knowledge was something she would come to share with others who experienced similar upbringings. In a video interview with actor/activist Marlo Thomas, Burnett was asked for her advice to children who, like her, have alcoholic parents. “First of all, it’s not your fault,” she explained. “You think, what am I doing that causes all of this. And second of all, and I wish it had been in existence when I was growing up, go to Alateen, which is an offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.”
This organization, said Burnett, was geared toward teenagers, “and what you learn to do, God willing, is to detach, with love. But they help you realize that you’re not, that you can’t cure them, and you didn’t cause it. So you have to look out for yourself.”
Carol Burnett was raised by her impoverished grandmother
When Carol Burnett, her younger half-sister Chrissie, and their grandmother, Mabel White (whom she called Nanny), relocated to L.A., noted People, they all lived together in a tiny studio apartment in a building called the Hollywood Arms.
As Burnett told UPI, their dire circumstances didn’t seem all that different from those of everyone else she knew. “Then, all my friends had something like my life,” she explained, pointing out that “most everybody in that neighborhood was on relief. It was the Depression.” She recalled thinking that society was divided into “two kinds of people — us and the people in the movies. I didn’t know anybody in between.”
Going to the movies, she revealed in an interview with Maclean’s, was Nanny’s one indulgence, and one that gave the youngster a sense of purpose. “Although we were on welfare, whatever money we could save, Nanny and I would go to the movies,” she said. Her fond memories of going to the cinema with her grandmother also came up in the aforementioned People interview. “I think those movies may be what did it for me — an imprint on a young mind and a young girl growing up that everything’s possible,” she told the outlet. “You can be happy.”
In addition to fostering Burnett’s love of film, Nanny inspired a famous Burnett-ism: The ear-tug move was the TV star’s way of saying hello to her grandmother on the program.
Financial roadblocks almost hindered Carol Burnett's career
Carol Burnett’s success didn’t come without a whole lot of good fortune. As People recalled, Burnett was thrilled when she was accepted to UCLA after graduating from high school, but crushed when she had no way to raise the $50 tuition. And then, an envelope showed up in her mailbox, containing that exact amount. “I still don’t know who it was,” Burnett told People of the mysterious person who changed her life.
While attending UCLA, she gravitated toward theater, and eventually began dreaming of Broadway. Yet money still remained a problem. Everything changed when, after a performance with her fellow students, she was approached by a husband and wife who had just watched her perform. When she told them she hoped to go to New York City, he offered both Burnett and her boyfriend $1,000 interest-free loans to fund their move.
There were conditions attached: they must pay him back within five years; if they became successful they would promise to similarly help out other struggling young performers; and, most importantly, they must never reveal his identity. “Somebody had helped him get his start in this country,” Burnett told People. “So he was paying it forward.”
Carole Burnett's parents both died in their 40s
Carol Burnett lost both her parents when she was still a young woman. “Mama and Daddy both died when they were 46,” she told UPI. It wasn’t until later in life, she admitted, that she could accept that their alcoholism “had nothing to do with me, I didn’t cause it.”
In her autobiography This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, Burnett wrote of visiting her father to say goodbye before she left for New York City to pursue her showbiz dreams. “He was in a cot in a charity hospital suffering from tuberculosis aggravated by years of drinking,” she wrote. Before she left, he asked her to save him a ticket for her first Broadway show; sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see his daughter’s success. “He died shortly after I got to New York,” she wrote.
Once she arrived in the Big Apple, success came quickly. According to People, it wasn’t long before the plucky performer landed an attention-getting role on TV’s The Garry Moore Show and then the lead role in Broadway hit Once Upon a Mattress, with CBS eventually signing her to an unprecedented deal that resulted in The Carol Burnett Show.
The bittersweet inspiration for this Carol Burnett character
Carol Burnett’s mother, Ina Lousie Burnett, was an aspiring writer who never found the success she believed she deserved. As Burnett revealed in an interview with UPI, elements of her mother wound up in Eunice, one of the more enduring characters she created for The Carol Burnett Show.
“When I played Eunice, I put a lot of Mama into her,” Burnett said. Noting that her mother neither resembled nor sounded like the character, Eunice and her mother did share “this philosophy of ‘if only…’ and ‘I could have…’ and ‘I should have…’ It was always, ‘If this hadn’t happened…’ or, to Nanny, ‘If you hadn’t rained on my dreams…’ There was a lot of Mama that I put into Eunice.”
The Eunice sketches, she told NPR, were equal parts tragedy and comedy. “Eunice always had these dreams… that she was gonna be somebody,” Burnett recalled, citing a sketch in which Eunice makes it onto the stage of wacky 1970s TV talent competition The Gong Show and considered it the first stop on her train to Hollywood stardom. “And, of course, they gonged her before she got three notes out,” Burnett recalled. The sketch, she admitted, “was a heavy piece.”
Carole Burnett's eldest battled addiction from an early age
While Carol Burnett was pushing her career to become one of TV’s biggest stars, all was not rosy on the home front. As she recalled for ABC News, behind the scenes she was coping with a failing marriage and the realization that her daughter Carrie Hamilton had developed a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol by age 13.
Burnett shouldered the blame for her daughter’s drug abuse. “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?” she said.
Burnett wrote about her daughter’s struggles in a book, Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story. In an excerpt shared by ET, she described checking Hamilton into more than one treatment facility. “Finally we got tough and sent her to rehab,” she wrote. “She got sober when she was 17,” Burnett said in an interview with People. “I put her in a third rehab place, and oh my God, she hated me. I came to the conclusion that I had to love her enough to let her hate me.”
After they started to rebuild, Carol Burnett's daughter died
After her daughter Carrie Hamilton got sober, Carol Burnett told People, “we started bonding. We wound up working together, writing a play together. We worked together in three shows.” Meanwhile, Hamilton pursued her own career as an actor and writer, amassing screen credits including such TV series as Fame and Beverly Hills, 90210, and a starring role in the feature film Tokyo Pop. Eventually, Burnett and her daughter teamed up to write a play. An adaptation of Burnett’s memoir One More Time, Hollywood Arms is based on her upbringing in her grandmother’s studio apartment.
Before the play premiered at Goodman Theater in Chicago in spring 2002, tragedy struck when Hamilton was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died in January 2002 at age 38.
As Burnett explained in an interview with Fox News, she learned a valuable lesson about life by watching her daughter in her final days. “When she was in the hospital the last time one of the nurses came up to me in the hall and said, ‘Carrie just cheers us up when we go in the room.’ And I asked Carrie, ‘How can you be up and so cheerful?’ and Carrie said, ‘Every day I wake up and decide today I’m going to love my life,'” said Burnett.
Two of Carol Burnett's marriages ended in divorce
Marriage has not always been easy for Carol Burnett. She was still in her 20s when she wed college sweetheart Don Saroyan who, like her, was an aspiring actor. According to a review of the book biography Laughing Till It Hurts: The Complete Life and Career of Carol Burnett in the Chicago Tribune, the marriage ended simply because she became “so obsessed with her burgeoning career that she soon [had] little time for anything else.”
Burnett’s second husband, Joe Hamilton, was also the executive producer on The Carol Burnett Show. While the two worked successfully together on her hit TV series, the experience had clearly taken its toll when, in 1982, they announced their separation. Burnett and Hamilton were married for 19 years, and shared three children. They divorced in 1982; he died in 1991.
Burnett wed one more time, in 2001, marrying drummer Brian Miller. Despite their age difference — he’s more than 20 years younger — the match proved to be a solid one. “As we get older, the gap between our ages narrows,” Burnett told People in 2010. “If you were 40 and married a 20-year-old, I don’t think you could communicate like [we do].”
Carol Burnett has mourned the deaths of her co-stars
In April 2020, Carol Burnett celebrated her 87th birthday. Living to such a ripe old age has meant saying goodbye to many friends, including several beloved co-stars on The Carol Burnett Show.
The first Carol Burnett Show cast member to pass away was Harvey Korman, who died in 2008 at 81. In a statement provided to CBS News, Burnett shared that she was “devastated” by Korman’s death. “She loved Harvey very much,” her assistant said. More than a decade later, Burnett said her final goodbye to Tim Conway, legendary for his ability to crack up the rest of the cast. After Conway’s passing in 2019 at age 85, Burnett issued a statement obtained by Deadline. “I’m heartbroken,” said Burnett. “He was one in a million, not only as a brilliant comedian but as a loving human being. I cherish the times we had together both on the screen and off. He’ll be in my heart forever.”
The following year, Lyle Waggoner — who spent seven years on The Carol Burnett Show — died at the age of 84. “He was funny, kind and multi-talented. But even more than that, a loving friend,” Burnett said in a statement to People. “I will miss him.”
Carol Burnett was made guardian of her grandson
Of Carol Burnett’s three children, her late daughter Carrie Hamilton wasn’t the only one to experience problems with substance abuse. As The Blast reported in August 2020, Burnett filed legal documents to have her and husband Brian Miller appointed as temporary legal guardians of her grandson, Dylan, then 13. According to The Blast, Burnett claimed that her daughter, Erin Hamilton, threatened suicide, with her family contacting the LAPD to perform a wellness check.
“Due to addiction issues and other circumstances that my daughter, Erin, has been struggling with impacting her immediate family dynamic, my husband and I have petitioned the court to be appointed legal guardian of my 14-year-old grandson,” Burnett said in a statement to People. “We look forward to recovery being the next stepping stone towards normalization and ask for privacy at this time to allow that process to occur.”
On Sept. 1, a judge granted Burnett’s request. While Burnett offered no comment, Entertainment Weekly reported that the court found “sufficient evidence… to grant the matter.” The order was valid until January 2021.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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