The Carol Burnett Show ran for 11 years and won more than 20 Emmy Awards — but star Carol Burnett says her fondest memories from those shows occurred before the cameras started rolling. Before each taping, the comedy queen would stand on stage for a Q&A session with the audience. Burnett describes some of her favorite pre-show chats and tells tales of her long show-biz career in her book This Time Together, which has just been released in paperback.
Burnett got her start in New York City thanks to a man who loaned her $1,000 to finance her adventure. She's never revealed his name — only that he was a wealthy, but not famous, businessman. "I was a student at UCLA," Burnett tells NPR's Neal Conan. "And our professor ... asked us to come down and do our little scenes for this party, and he would grade us while we were performing in front of this black-tie affair."
After her performance, a man and his wife approached Burnett and asked her what she wanted to do with her life. "I told him, I want to go to New York," she remembers, but she didn't have enough money. The man offered to finance her move, but Burnett was doubtful.
"I really thought he'd had a little too much champagne," she says, but his wife assured her he meant it. All she had to promise was to try to pay him back in five years, and to do the same for someone else down the line, if she could.
Burnett struggled when she got to New York, but she eventually landed a role in the musical Once Upon A Mattress and paid him back, five years to the day after she received the loan.
The young comedian found good company in New York — she befriended actress Lucille Ball, who had tremendous influence on Burnett's life and career. "She and I became joined at the hip" early on, Burnett says.
Ball attended the second night of Once Upon A Mattress. Burnett remembers peeking through the curtains and spying "this carrot-top" in the second row. "I thought, 'Oh my God, oh my God, it's Lucille Ball. I don't know if I can get through this evening.' " She was more intimidated by Ball on the second night than by the theater critics on opening night.
After the show, Ball visited Burnett in her dressing room. "She talked to me about how much she liked what I did, and before she left, she said, 'If you ever need me, give me a call, for anything.' " Burnett was bowled over by the offer, and a few years later, she made that call.
"I was going to do a special for CBS, and they were going to put it on if I got a big guest star," she remembers. The producer suggested she call Ball. Burnett was reluctant, but at her producer's prodding, she followed up.
Ball's secretary put her right through, and Ball picked up the phone. Burnett hesitantly asked Ball to join her for the special, and Ball said simply: "So when do you want me?" And they did the show together.
In the 1980s, Burnett starred as Miss Hannigan, the tyrant who runs an orphanage, in the film version of Annie. It was a rocky introduction for some young fans. "Some of the little girls who watched, they weren't afraid, they were just kind of fascinated with the character," Burnett remembers. But the really little children were scared. "I was just playing make-believe," Burnett would tell them. She'd then ask the kids if they enjoyed playing make-believe — and soon they'd become fans as well.