On Second Thought: Carol Burnett
On Second Thought offers iconic subjects the rare chance to revisit an interview from our archives, and reckon with the good and the bad of it. Hover over the highlighted text to see Carol Burnett’s annotations.
The Emmy— and Grammy—winning Hollywood icon, whose unscripted comedy series A Little Help premieres this spring on Netflix, revisits a conversation she had with Interview in 1979.
Sunday, September 25, 1978, 1:30 p.m. Andy Warhol, Bob Colacello and Wendy Stark (Ray Stark’s daughter) are sitting in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel waiting for Carol Burnett, the TV superstar who is currently starring in Robert Altman’s A Wedding. Carol rushes in a few minutes later from the doctor. Due to a sore throat she doesn’t sound anything like her TV self. And she looks younger, thinner and chicer than on her show. She is wearing a white cotton shirt with no collar, a beige cotton skirt and vest, a beige rope belt, beige rope sandals and a big pavé diamond wedding band.
Carol Burnett: Hi Andy. It’s so nice to see you. I’d kiss you, but I don’t want to spread any germs. I’m going to live. I sound like Brenda Vaccaro on a good day.
Carol: I was ill. I started to come down with this on Thursday. We flew to New York for the opening of A Wedding. We got there late. I just saw the last forty minutes. We flew back Saturday night. I was really out of it yesterday. I was in bed all day. I’ll be fine. I sound much worse than I feel.
AW: You sound great.
Carol: My husband likes it. I wish I could keep it for him. Andy, I would have loved to have been at your opening but I was on codeine. I’ve never had it before. All I did was sleep all day. I think my sister and brother-in-law might have gone. He’s an art dealer at ARCO. He’s a real fan of yours.
AW: I didn’t know you had a sister. You don’t talk about your sister on TV.
Carol: Yes I do. I raised her. She’s eleven years younger than I am.
AW: Did you ever have her on the show?
Carol: No. I don’t do that.
AW: Is that the reason why you have the other girl?
Carol: In a way that’s how it started with Vicki (Lawrence). I’ve always been asked why I don’t put my daughters on television. I always say, “Listen, my old lady didn’t have a show of her own. Let them get theirs.”
Bob Colacello: You were really great in A Wedding.
Carol: Thank you. I loved doing that movie. I had more fun. It’s a crazy film.
Wendy Stark: What was it like working with Bob Altman?
Carol: The best. The cast included fifty people. I felt no responsibility on my shoulders at all. I was just one of a rep group and I liked that. You can stick your neck out and make a fool of yourself. If you do he cuts it out and doesn’t use it. He’s very kind to everyone. I like that. If anybody looks at me cross-eyed, I burst into tears. I’m nervous if they yell. He’s just the opposite. He’s very compassionate.
Bob: I hear you’re doing a new film with Altman called Health. What kind of part do you play in that?
Carol: I have no idea. You never know with him.
Wendy: Does he work with a script?
Carol: He does. He doesn’t give it to you. He tells you the story and what your character is going to be. You just say, “OK.” He will accept your input. He will give you a page or two before you’re going to shoot, the day before. If you want to re-write something and make it more comfortable for yourself he says, be my guest as long as the information is gotten across that he wants to happen in that scene. That’s why everybody in A Wedding was so good.
Bob: Who thought up the name Tulip?
Carol: He did. He called me long distance and asked me if I liked the name Tulip. I said, “Sure.” He said, “OK. That’s your name in the movie.”
AW: Are you going to write a movie for yourself?
Carol: No. (pause) You’ve put a bug in my head now. You’ve planted a seed. Maybe someday. I don’t know if I could sit down and actually do it. I think I could think up a premise.
AW: You work the same way Altman does.
Carol: Yes. On our show we’d get the sketches though. Harvey (Korman), Vicki, Tim (Conway) and I would put them on their feet and start rehearsing. We’d change things. The writers were so good. They weren’t married to their material. They didn’t go into a catatonic state if we changed something.
AW: We see your show every night at dinner time. It’s so great. Why don’t they put it all together and make it one whole day?
Carol: I don’t know. Go talk to the syndication people. I have no idea how their minds work.
AW: It’s just terrific to see it every night. In New York it’s on at 7:30. That’s the best time.
Carol: It’s on out here at 8:00pm. It’s terrific that we got that. I think it set a precedent for variety shows now to be in syndication. Our dancers and singers are thrilled. It’s put one of their kids through college. Usually actors get the residuals but never a variety show dancer or singer. Now they all do whether they appear in that segment of the show or not. If they were on the show they get paid.
AW: The shows are cut?
Carol: Yes. They used to be an hour long. We couldn’t do the hour one because of the musician’s union. It just wouldn’t have worked. You’d have to pay every single musician every single night the same amount of money they got for one session. It would just be prohibitive. They cut it to a half hour and just put in sketches. Once in awhile you’ll see a musical number but only if it’s comedy.
AW: You could have a whole new show of just music.
Carol: It would be great if we could ever do that. It’s tough with the unions.
Wendy: It must have been nice bringing up your children and having them with you all the time.
Carol: We live ten minutes away from here. The studio is about twelve minutes away. For the eleven years we did the show I worked and average of thirty hours in a whole week. That’s a part time job. When we started it my oldest daughter was two and a half. She’s fourteen now.
AW: Do they watch the show?
Carol: No. Well, it depends who the guests are. They certainly wanted to come to the taping when Steve Martin was a guest. My oldest is quite a critic. My feeling is they ought to get kids up to the networks and have them watch things for their age group. Kids are so honest. They really tell it like it is. She’s already predicted a big hit for ABC, Mork and Mindy. She says, “It’s gonna be a smash because that guy’s gonna be the new Fonz.”
AW: I like The Hulk. He’s so sexy. Spiderman is great, too.
Carol: I love him.
AW: He actually climbs up the Empire State building.
Carol: I think they shoot it one way and show it another.
AW: How do they do that?
Wendy: They put the building on its side, flat on the ground. He crawls on his hands and knees.
AW: He’s not really climbing the Empire State Building? I thought I read that he did.
Wendy: They did the Fred Astaire movie the same way.
Carol: You’re a television buff, I’m a movie buff.
AW: I watch television all the time—two sets at a time….
Carol: I could do that and keep track.
AW: … and talk on the telephone.
Carol: Where is your mind?
AW: I don’t have one.
Carol: Sure you do. You have to be able to assimilate….If you’re talking on the telephone and you’re watching two television shows you know exactly what’s happening on all three things?
AW: Yes. I talk to the same person for three hours. I always tape her.
Carol: When she’s on the phone?
AW: She’s the only person I tape on the phone. I’ve taped her for fifteen years.
Carol: You can play her back? That’s wonderful. I have a friend that I do that with. Kenny Solmes, do you know him? He’s such fun. We always call each other up during any of the beauty pageants. We’ll stay on for three hours saying, “This one is going to win. Let’s see what the talent is on that one.” We make bets.
AW: We met Mr. and Mrs. Bert Parks at a dinner last week. It was very exciting.
Carol: What is your favorite show?
Carol: I have one soap that I’m hooked on. My kids got me involved with it two years ago, All My Children. It is so funny. I really admire soap opera actors because they have to learn so much for the next day. They don’t know where their characters are going because they keep it a secret from them.
AW: It’s actually the new school for actors. They have prettier people too.
Carol: You’re right.
AW: I like when they’re going to have sex. Then the commercial comes on. The show comes back on again and they’re zipping their pants and dresses up.
Carol: They can’t do that on prime time. The daytime shows get away with so much more. I can’t believe some of the things they do on that program.
AW: What movie did you see on the plane?
AW: We saw The Buddy Holly Story. It was really good.
Carol: I hear Gary Busey is wonderful. I loved Stockard Channing in Grease.
AW: She’s an old friend of ours. Do you know Mae West?
Carol: I’ve met her. Roddy McDowell had a dinner party at his house. She was there sitting in a chair holding court. She was telling great stories. My husband escorted her to dinner. She came on very strong. It was wonderful. Andy, what do you want to talk about?
AW: I got so panicky when they said you lost your voice. I never know what to say.
Carol: I’ll interview you. Where were you born?
Bob: Where were you born?
Carol: San Antonio, Texas. Did you always draw?
AW: I used to play with baby dolls when I was little. That turned into drawing.
Carol: When did you pick up a pencil?
AW: When I was about seven years old.
Carol: Me too.
AW: Do you draw?
Carol: I haven’t drawn in years. I wanted to be a cartoonist.
AW: That’s why I got my first Charlie McCarthy doll. I loved Walt Disney movies. Do you collect anything?
Carol: No. I know nothing about art.
AW: Do you keep all your designer clothes?
Carol: Not in my house. After eleven years we have as much as Brooks Costumes. We have dragons, Popeye, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and all kinds of things people can put on.
AW: Do you keep all the dresses that were designed by Bob Mackie?
Carol: They’re in what I call “the big closet in the sky.”
AW: They’re really museum pieces.
Carol: They’re beautiful. Tonight to go to the premiere Bob will pick something out. He’ll just send it up to the house. I hate to shop. I’ve hated it all my life. My grandmother used to schlepp me around Hollywood Boulevard. All I wanted to do was go to the movies.
Bob: Why did your grandmother raise you?
Carol: My mother moved out here. She wanted to be a writer. She and my father were separated on and off. They left me with my grandmother in Texas. Then we moved out here to join my mother and they were separated. I just stayed with my grandmother. We lived in an apartment building in Hollywood. My mother lived across the hall. My dad was an alcoholic. Then my mother became one. They both died when they were forty-six.
Wendy: In eleven years, which show that you did was your favorite?
Carol: I have favorite segments—the movie take-off, that awful family we do, Eunice and Mama. I miss Eunice, I think, more than anything on the show. I miss doing her because during the last two years she started to become kind of three dimensional and pitiful—much more so than when we started out. I did a whole analyzation of Eunice. If and when the old lady dies, Eunice will go to pieces. She won’t have anyone to fight with and she won’t have anyone to blame. They live for each other.
AW: How did Altman ask you to be in his movie? Did you just run into him on the street?
Carol: It’s wonderful and I didn’t know this till later. He called Dinah Shore for the role. Dinah never returned his call. Then he called my agent. I ran over to meet him. He told me what the story was and the plot and he told me he’d like me to be the mother of the bride. That was it. It was raining. I love rain. It’s the one thing I’m very superstitious about. Good things happen to me when it rains. I thought, “That’s an omen. I’m just going to take a chance.” I called him back and I said, “OK.” I can’t tell you about the next movie because he’ll make it up as he goes along.
AW: I thought Vittorio Gassman was so good in A Wedding. He’s so handsome.
Carol: I’m going to ask Bob if he’d come up with something for me and Vittorio. He’s just wonderful. He’s such a gentleman.
AW: He and Shelley Winters have a beautiful daughter. She graduated from Harvard.
Carol: I met her. She came to the location for a week.
Bob: Nina Van Pallandt and Dina Merrill were great, too.
AW: Are you going to write a book?
Carol: Someday, when I’m eighty. People respect you more when you’re real old. Then you can tell everybody what you think.
Wendy: Do you keep daily journals?
Carol: I just started last year. I have a great memory though.
Wendy: Do you take lots of family pictures?
Carol: My husband does. The problem is we get them back from being developed and they go in a drawer. Someday I’ve got to sort them out.
AW: I put everything in boxes.
Carol: When we moved out here my grandmother brought her trunks. She never opened them. She died at eighty-two and there were these trunks. She was born in Arkansas in a little teeny town and was married six times. The stories about her are incredible. I was afraid to open the trunks. I thought I’d find one of the husbands. When she died she had a forty year old boyfriend. Isn’t that a way to go?
AW: You could write a book about her?
Carol: There’s a great mystery. Most of the relatives are dead. She was the one that nobody talked about.
AW: What was in the trunks?
Carol: I found wonderful old love letters from someone I’d never heard of.
Bob: Not a husband?
Carol: It wasn’t a husband. They were from a man in Memphis. She was a pack rat. When I lived with her she would save everything—peanut butter jars, jelly jars. I should have given you the trunks.
AW: Those jars would be expensive today.
Carol: There were old newspapers, drawings that I’d done when I was seven.
Bob: Wherever you go here people tell you, “This is where Dolores Del Rio lived. This was Valentino’s house.” Whose house do you live in?
Carol: Our own. We built it. Before that I lived in Betty Grable’s house. She did our show the first year. She was a terrific woman. I had a great deal of fun with her.
Wendy: Who designed the new one?
Carol: My husband did. He loves architecture. I wanted three things: the world’s biggest closet because I never had a closet as a child, a room to do yoga in, and an attic room, like a little retreat where I could meditate.
Wendy: Do you exercise everyday?
Carol: I do yoga.
AW: Did you ever make fun of yoga on TV?
Carol: I don’t think it’s to be made fun of—it’s too good a thing.
AW: When did you get involved in yoga?
Carol: Six years ago.
AW: Can you actually stand on your head?
Bob: Where do you like to go for vacations?
Carol: I like Hawaii and I like it when it rains.
Bob: How often do you go on vacation?
Carol: Maybe once a year.
AW: Was Once Upon a Mattress the first thing you ever did?
Carol: In New York on stage, yes.
Bob: You’re really good friends with Rock Hudson, aren’t you?
Carol: Yes. He’s terrific. I talked him into doing stage work.
AW: I think it’s harder to be in movies than it is to be in theater.
Carol: I agree with you. You’re more in control of yourself in the theater. When you’re on stage there’s no editor there. The audiences tells you when you’re right and when you’re wrong. In movies you don’t know till months later. You read about it. We did our show in front of an audience and we could always tell. I always play to that studio audience and not to the home audience. I knew that if they would laugh, chances are the folks watching it would.
Bob: When you’re in New York and walking down the street, do people recognize you?
Carol: If someone is looking for me, yeah. There are professional fans. They’re everywhere—the people you see at every opening.
Wendy: You look so young. It’s hard to believe that you have such grown-up children.
Carol: They could be older. I could be the mother of a twenty year old. No, I couldn’t. Yes, I could. I’m forty-five.
Bob: Do you go out a lot at night?
Carol: No. We eat at six-thirty every night with the kids. Kids are in the habit of saying, “So he goes….” instead of saying, “She said….” They use the term “goes” constantly. My mother used to really let me have it grammatically. I’m not always perfect but I try to think about it. I gave the kids each a roll of pennies and they have them at the beginning of dinner. When they make a mistake they have to throw in one penny.
Wendy: Do you limit your children’s TV?
Carol: Yes, I try.
Bob: Do you read a lot?
Carol: Yes. I’ve been into reading a lot of Eastern philosophy.
Bob: You don’t read Hollywood biographies?
Carol: Once in a great while I get a craving for a movie magazine. I look at the pictures and read the captions.
Bob: We didn’t see Rona Barrett on this trip.
Carol: Rona Rumor.
Bob: What do you watch on TV?
Carol: I love to watch reruns of Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke and Lucy. Those shows really hold up. If I’m home in the afternoon, I love to watch talk shows. There are two game shows I love: $20,000 Pyramid and Family Feud. They’re fun.
AW: How about the Gong Show. It was wonderful. Before she even started it was gonged right out of existence. I love a good mini series. I loved Rich Man Poor Man. It was like a soap opera.
Bob: We met the star of Roots at Fiorucci the other night.
Carol: Which one?
Bob: LeVar Burton.
Carol: They were all so good.
Bob: When are you coming to New York again?
Carol: October 12th. We’ll be there for a week. We’re going to be filming in Spanish Harlem.
AW: Are you going to be playing a Puerto Rican?
Carol: Yeah. I’m going to stop shaving starting today. No, it’s a movie of the week called The Tenth Month. It’s about a lady in her forties who is unmarried, pregnant, and is a journalist. She doesn’t want anyone to know she’s pregnant so she decides to hideout in Spanish Harlem. They’ve already talked to two of the gangs up there about working with us. I think it’s going to be very interesting. Dina Merrill is in it. It’s going to be fun to see her up in Spanish Harlem.
Carol: It’s so hard for me to find a bad (English actor). Is it because of their accents?
AW: Yes. Mick Jagger sounds very good. Did you ever meet him?
Carol: I’m very sheltered from doing this show for eleven years. I don’t really know a lot of different people. I’m much more busy now than when I was doing the show.
AW: Do you think you will do your TV show again?
Carol: I don’t think so. I like doing different things now. I won’t say I’ll never do it again. I just finished a pretty serious movie for ABC called Friendly Fire.
AW: What’s that about?
Carol: It’s a true story about a farm couple in Ohio whose son was killed in the Vietnamese War. They became the first mid-western protestors. It’s a three hour movie for ABC.
Bob: Are you friends with Lucille Ball?
Bob: What do you two do together?
Carol: I haven’t seen her recently. When we first moved out here she took me under her wing. She called me, “The Kid.” She put me on her show when we were broke. When I did one of my first specials I called her. She said, “When are you doing it?” I told her. She said, “You got me.” She saved my life. She’s a very good friend. She gave me a wonderful baby shower for my second daughter. It was one of the funniest evenings. Men and women were invited. How many men want to go to baby showers? It was hysterical. Anne Margret and her husband were there. Also Rock Hudson.
Wendy: Did you have to open up the presents in front of them all?
Carol: Gary Morton opened them up and did a monologue on each gift that was hysterical.
AW: We took a bus ride with him to see Lucie Arnaz. He did a monologue all the way out.
Wendy: Are most of your friends in the entertainment business?
Carol: Half and half.
AW: You’ll probably do the next Woody Allen movie, won’t you?
Carol: I don’t know. I’m open for drafts, I’ll go where the roles are. I don’t care if it’s movies or television or somebody’s living room. That’s England’s way of thinking.
Bob: Will you perform at our next party?
Carol: If it’s a good role and you write it. I don’t like to work alone.
Bob: You could dance with Pat Ast.
AW: Do you know Pat?
Carol: No. But Jackie Curtis….
AW: You know Jackie Curtis?
Carol: Let me tell you how I know Jackie Curtis. Jackie Curtis was a kid on Second Avenue when I was in Once Upon a Mattress. He used to come to the stage door all the time with Tony Rizzo who is now taking photographs. They were around twelve years old. They helped us paint signs when they were going to move Mattress out of the Phoenix Theater. I got the idea to picket the theater so we could get publicity and get another theater uptown. The kids helped us picket up and down Second Avenue. When I got on the Gary Moore Show Jackie used to come by the stage door every Friday night. We’d chat. I haven’t seen him since then.
AW: Jackie is really great. He’s a good playwright.
Carol: He always did have a fertile mind. Please say hello for me. Give him my love. I have to go home and challenge Max Factor. It always is a challenge and I lose. But I’m going to give it a whirl.
Bob: You should try Halston’s disco makeup.
Carol: That’s a good idea. Where are you staying?
AW: At the L’Ermitage. It’s very nice. There are a lot of stars there but you don’t see them. I like to see stars.
Carol: You can sit here in the lobby and see just about everybody. If you’re that way I have to tell my Cary Grant story. I met him for the first time three years ago. Harvey had come from rehearsal one day—before this. He had just been at a party the night before. He said, “Guess who tapped me on the shoulder and said he watches our show every week?” I said, “Who?” He said, “Cary Grant.” I went, “Oh, you’re kidding. He knows who we are?” He said, “Yes.” He said, “He stays home or if he goes out to somebody’s house he’ll ask them to put our show on.” I said, “Oh my God. How flattering.” About a month later my husband and I went to a party for Peggy Lee. We got there early and made friends with the caterers because we were the first ones there. Pretty soon it got really packed. All of a sudden a hush came over the party. In walked Cary Grant. Joe, my husband said, “You oughta say hello.” I said, “I don’t want to meet him, I don’t want to meet him.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Because Harvey told me he was a fan. If I meet him I know I’ll do something stupid and ruin it. So let’s go.” Sure enough I’m putting my coat on and there’s a tap. It’s Peggy Lee. She said, “I’d like you to meet Cary Grant.” He said something very charming. Why couldn’t I have said, “How do you do. It’s nice meeting you?” I said, “Oh. You’re a credit to your profession.” Joe looked at me and said, “You were right. We should have left.” I wanted to die. I can’t meet people like that. Andy, I just had to tell you that story. I have to go. Come see us in Spanish Harlem.