'Laughter And Reflections' With Carol Burnett

Carol Burnett speaks at the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles in 2008. i i

Carol Burnett speaks at the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles in 2008. Noel Vasquez/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Noel Vasquez/Getty Images
Carol Burnett speaks at the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles in 2008.

Carol Burnett speaks at the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles in 2008.

Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

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."

Carol Burnett Remembers Elizabeth Taylor

Carol Burnett and Elizabeth Taylor, who died Wednesday at age 79, worked together a number of times over their careers. They befriended one another on the set of an HBO movie, appropriately titled Between Friends.

Carol Burnett  (left) and Elizabeth Taylor, shown together in 1983. i i

Carol Burnett (left) and Elizabeth Taylor, shown together in 1983. Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty Images
Carol Burnett  (left) and Elizabeth Taylor, shown together in 1983.

Carol Burnett (left) and Elizabeth Taylor, shown together in 1983.

Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty Images

Later, Taylor surprised Burnett on the set of ABC's All My Children. "Being the good sport she is," Burnett remembers, Taylor hid from Burnett until her cameo. "The cameras kept rolling, and her belly laugh and my expletive — bleeped — went to the air exactly as taped."

VIDEO: See The Scene

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.

Burnett (right) and Lucille Ball became "joined at the hip" early on, Burnett says. They pose together in 1982 when Ball received a TV Guide Life Achievement Award. i i

Burnett (right) and Lucille Ball became "joined at the hip" early on, Burnett says. They pose together in 1982 when Ball received a TV Guide Life Achievement Award. Nick Ut/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Nick Ut/AP
Burnett (right) and Lucille Ball became "joined at the hip" early on, Burnett says. They pose together in 1982 when Ball received a TV Guide Life Achievement Award.

Burnett (right) and Lucille Ball became "joined at the hip" early on, Burnett says. They pose together in 1982 when Ball received a TV Guide Life Achievement Award.

Nick Ut/AP

"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.

Excerpt: 'This Time Together'

This Time Together
This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection
By Carol Burnett
Hardcover, 288 pages
Harmony
List price: $25

Jimmy Stewart

My grandmother Nanny and I were at the picture show. I hadn't reached two digits yet in age because I distinctly remember my feet couldn't touch the floor of the movie house. Nanny and I were still living in San Antonio, Texas. My mama and daddy had gone ahead to California, where Nanny and I would later wind up. The feature had just begun, and his face lit up the screen. I couldn't take my eyes off him. He was talking to a beautiful lady in a nightclub somewhere. I'm not sure what the movie was. It didn't matter. He had a kind of crooked smile and spoke with a soft . . . what kind of voice was it? A drawl ? The camera followed him as he stood up. You could see how very long his legs were. I was sure his feet never had trouble reaching the floor. "Skinny as a string bean," Nanny said. After the picture show, we went home to the old house, and I couldn't get the man in the movie out of my mind. He wasn't just an actor like all the others I'd seen in picture shows. This man was different. He spoke to me. I tried to explain this to Nanny.

"Nanny, I know that man."

"What do you mean, you know him?"

"I just do. He's my friend; we just haven't met yet."

"That's nice, dear. Drink your Ovaltine and go to bed."

Years later in Hollywood — it was 1958, to be exact — I received a call from film director Mervyn LeRoy. He had seen me in a couple of appearances on television and asked if I would meet with him. I was in my early twenties and just getting started, so naturally I was thrilled by his interest. He suggested that I come out to the Warner Bros. studios the next morning and meet him on the soundstage where he was shooting a movie.

"Why don't you get here a little before lunch, so you can watch us shoot a scene?"

Wow. I had never been on a real movie set. I owned one decent suit, one good pair of stockings, and one pair of re-soled high heels. My purse didn't match, but it was all I had. I took the bus to Burbank. The studio guard had my name on his list and pointed me toward the soundstage. I waited for the red light outside, which meant "keep out," to stop spinning. It stopped, a bell rang, and I walked into a huge cavern — cameras, lights, cables on the floor, ceilings as tall as skyscrapers, and catwalks everywhere you looked. At the far end of the stage I saw a small set. It was up on a rolling platform about two feet off the ground. It was an office — a desk, one chair, a filing cabinet, and a door. The stagehands were securing it under the spotlights. Mr. LeRoy came over to me and introduced himself. "Glad you could make it, Carol. We just have a small scene to do before we break. Shouldn't take long." He motioned me to a chair out of the way. "Okay, let's go for one!" An actor climbed up onto the set and took his place behind the desk. Mr. LeRoy called out to another actor behind the set door.

"Ready, Jimmy?"

"All set back here, Merv."

The voice. I knew it immediately. Oh my Lord, I'm in the same space as my idol.

Mr. LeRoy called, "Action!" and Jimmy Stewart walked through the door and presented a badge to the man at the desk.

That was it. End of scene.

"Cut! That's a print!"

The movie they were shooting was The FBI Story. Lunch was called, and Mr. LeRoy asked me if I'd like to meet Jimmy. He was still up on the set, and Mr. LeRoy gave me a helping hand as I climbed up onto the platform. We were introduced. I was inches away from the face I had loved since I was a very little girl. He smiled and said he was glad to make my acquaintance. He shook my hand. He looked into my eyes. He seemed in no hurry to go to lunch.

What was it about him that drew me to him in such a deeply personal way? I admired other actors — I was a big fan of a lot of them — but there was something about him that was different. I felt it every time I saw him in the movies. And now here he was. What I had seen on the screen was amplified a hundred times in person. The warmth. The humility. The humor. The heart. A lump popped up in my throat, signaling the beginning of tears. Overwhelmed, I knew I had to get out of there before I started to cry. I felt like an idiot.

Trying to be funny or flip or whatever it was, I gave a stupid little salute and piped up with what must be one of the dumbest things I could've come up with: "Well, guess it's time to tie on the ol' feedbag!" With that I whirled around and stepped off the two-foot-high set right into a bucket of whitewash. For a nightmarish moment I just stood there frozen, my back to them with one foot in and one foot out. Frozen.

Not wanting Jimmy Stewart or Mervyn LeRoy to realize this was an accident, I decided to head for the door, hoping (praying) they'd think I'd done this for a laugh. I didn't look back.

I proceeded to drag that bucket, my right foot still in it, clear across the soundstage, about five miles. The whitewash was squishing away in my ruined shoe, making gurgling sounds accompanied by the scrape of the bottom of the bucket on the floor. Squish . . . gurgle . . . scrape. Squish . . . gurgle . . . scrape. I didn't hear any laughter.

I opened the door into the glaring sunlight and pulled my sopping foot and ruined shoe out of the bucket. I truly don't remember what happened after that. Obviously, I must've caught the bus and gone home. I don't remember hearing from Mr. LeRoy again.

Wait, though. There's a happy postscript. Years later I had a successful TV show on the air, which my husband, Joe Hamilton, produced. Hollywood is a small town, and my husband and I got to know Jimmy Stewart and his beautiful, terrifically funny wife, Gloria, through mutual friends, and developed a close relationship.

I remember one time when we had a party at our house and invited the Stewarts. Gloria called to accept, with a caveat.

"We're going to be there all right, but I have to warn you, Jimmy doesn't like to stay up late, so don't be upset if we leave shortly after dinner. He likes to be in bed by ten o'clock." No problem. We were just thrilled they were coming.

Our guest list also included Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Jo Stafford and Paul Weston, and Mel Torme — all fantastic singers and musicians. After dinner, we all went into the living room, and Paul Weston sat down at the piano. As the musical part of the evening began, I fully expected the Stewarts to say their goodbyes. But Jimmy Stewart didn't get up to go home. Instead, he walked over to the gang gathered around the piano and joined in. It was a sight to behold. There he was, harmonizing with the best of them. Later Gloria came over to me and said, "He's having the time of his life. I don't know how I'm going to get him out of here!" They were the last people to leave the party. It was after one in the morning.

Gloria called the next day to say that anytime we had another party like that to please invite them. Jimmy had had a ball. We saw each other fairly often in those days. Jimmy Stewart even surprised me on the final episode of my variety show, in 1978, by showing up and playing the piano, singing his favorite tune, "Ragtime Cowboy Joe." A few years later, in December 1983, I was thrilled to be in the television segment that saluted him at the Kennedy Center Honors. I sang "You'd Be So Easy to Love," which he had sung to Eleanor Powell in the 1930s movie musical Born to Dance. Afterward he sent me the sweetest note.

Dear Carol,

We had a fine Christmas. And the best Christmas present I got was you coming all that way to D.C. to sing to me at the Kennedy Center.

Bless your heart. All my love.

Jimmy

That note is framed on my desk at home.

Jimmy Stewart returned the favor a few years later, when I was being honored by the Variety Club. Again he surprised me. He pulled up a stool, held my hand, and sang "You'd Be So Easy to Love" right back to me. As you can imagine, it was a moment I'll cherish forever.

At one point I did tell Jimmy the story of the bucket of whitewash. He was kind enough to say he didn't remember, and maybe he really didn't. No matter — I got a laugh out of him when I told him about it, even if it was years later. I will always feel like Jimmy Stewart was a part of me. There was some strange connection there that drew a little girl to him all those years ago in that darkened San Antonio movie house, when I first realized that I knew him.

And yes, Nanny, he was my friend.

And dreams really can come true.

But I'm getting ahead of myself . . .

Excerpted from This Time Together by Carol Burnett. Copyright 2010. Reprinted by permission of Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.

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Laughter and Reflection

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