The Stunning Transformation Of Carol Burnett From 9 To 90

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Carol Burnett first graced American television screens in the 1950s — and never left. A breakout comedy star in the early 1960s, Burnett's fame entered a whole other level when she began hosting her own CBS variety show in 1967. While the network was initially reluctant to air a show hosted by a woman, she persisted. The result was television magic, as she and her iconically talented ensemble cast entertained 30 million viewers each Saturday night on her namesake series, "The Carol Burnett Show." The show ran for 11 hit seasons, propelling Burnett from TV star to TV legend, but there was more to come: starring in movies, more television series, and a shift to dramatic roles. 

Along the way, she's won a Grammy, a Tony, multiple Emmys, and so many Golden Globes that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association actually named its excellence in television award for her. In addition to being a Kennedy Center honoree, she's also a recipient of the prestigious Mark Twain Award for American Humor, the Television Critics Association's Heritage Award, two Peabody Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

More recently, she experienced a late-in-life spurt of acclaimed television work at an age when most people would be ensconced in a rest home; how many 90-year-olds are there who celebrated that milestone birthday with a highly rated TV special? To find out more about this American comedy legend, read on for a look at the stunning transformation of Carol Burnett from ages 9 to 90.

Carol Burnett had a difficult childhood and invented an imaginary twin

Carol Burnett was just a kid when her parents divorced, leading her to live with her grandmother in a tiny Hollywood apartment. She grew up poor but surprisingly happy, given her difficult family circumstances. To amuse herself, the youngster delved into her fertile imagination and emerged with an imaginary twin, whom she named Karen. A born performer, Burnett entertained the building's other tenants, wearing one outfit while acting as herself, and then changing into a different set of clothes to become Karen. She eventually found the ruse too exhausting to keep up but firmly believed some of the folks who'd seen her doppelgänger believed Karen was for real.

In addition to creating an imaginary twin, Burnett was also quite young when she first learned to do her now-iconic Tarzan yell. "The Tarzan yell happened when I was about 9 years old," she said in an interview with USA Today, recalling how she and her cousin would see movies together as kids, and then act out the stories they'd seen in character. After seeing a "Tarzan" movie, Carol's cousin became Jane, and she was the lord of the jungle, necessitating the ability to do that yell. "So, I taught myself to do the Tarzan yell," she added.

During an interview with television host Larry King, Burnett revealed she'd once taught opera diva Beverly Sills to do the Tarzan yell, and revealed its simple secret. "It's a yodel," she explained.

How one laugh changed Burnett's life

After graduating from Hollywood High School, Carol Burnett was accepted to UCLA. Enrolling in the playwriting program, she learned that she was required to take an acting class, which led to her stage debut in a school play. "The first show I was ever in was a student-written one-act script and I played a hillbilly girl," she told the Toronto Star. "Don't ask me why, but when we were in front of the audience, I suddenly decided I was going to stretch out all my words and my first line came out 'I'm baaaaaaaack!'"

The audience laughed enthusiastically, and Burnett found herself enveloped in a feeling she'd never experienced before. "All of a sudden, after so much coldness and emptiness in my life, I knew the sensation of all that warmth wrapping around me," she said, adding that laugh changed the trajectory of her life by sending her on a quest for more laughter as she honed her skills onstage in various UCLA student productions. "I had always been a quiet, shy, sad sort of girl and then everything changed for me," she explained. "You spend the rest of your life hoping you'll hear a laugh that great again."

That led Burnett to New York City in search of fame, fortune — and more laughs.

A parody song about a politician put her on the map

The phrase "overnight sensation" doesn't exactly sum up her Carol Burnett's early years in New York, pursuing acting roles. "I was a hat-check girl, I was an usher, I was everything except an actress," she told the Toronto Star.

Performing at New York's Blue Angel nightclub and in need of new material, Burnett and a friend wrote a song parodying the extreme fan reaction that Elvis Presley was receiving at the time. Burnett sang of her obsessive infatuation — not for Elvis, but for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. The song called "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles" became the centerpiece of Burnett's act; she was eventually invited to perform the song on Jack Paar's "Tonight Show," and was such a hit that she ended up performing the song on TV three different times within just a few days. When Dulles appeared on television, he was asked about the song — with Burnett watching in shock in her tiny apartment. "I make it a policy to never discuss affairs of the heart in public," he said, as she recollected. 

Thanks to that one little ditty, Burnett's stalled acting career suddenly took off like a rocket. "She made Life magazine with it," recalled comedian Phyllis Diller of "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," in an interview for the PBS series "Pioneers of Television." "She became a known person."

She became the toast of Broadway with Once Upon a Mattress

In 1959, Carol Burnett landed the starring role in a new musical, "Once Upon a Mattress," based on Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairytale, "The Princess and the Pea." The role had been written for an established star, but director George Abbott insisted on casting an unknown — which wound up being Burnett. "So that was like a dream come true, you know?" Burnett told Broadway World. "How that happened was just kind of a miracle."

Booked to run for six weeks at the off-Broadway Phoenix Theater, Burnett hatched a scheme to garner some attention. At the end of the final performance, she and the rest of the cast — still in costume — began picketing outside the theater, demanding that their show be taken to Broadway. "We got into the New York Post, not even in the theater section. It was in, like, page two about how the cast just picketing its own show to get another theater. And we did," Burnett recalled of how the show ended up on Broadway.

"Once Upon a Mattress" holds a special place in Burnett's heart — so much so that she's returned to it various times throughout her career. First, she starred in a 1964 television version, and then another TV version in 1972. More than 30 years later, she starred in a 2005 television adaptation — this time as Queen Aggravain, the mother of the character she originated all those years earlier.  

Her talent burst through on The Garry Moore Show

While starring in "Once Upon a Mattress," Carol Burnett was invited to join the cast of "The Garry Moore Show." Starring in a Broadway hit was one thing, but appearing in millions of homes each week via the magic of television was not something the ambitious young actor was prepared to pass up — so she did both. "I had two jobs of a lifetime at the same time, and at first I had no days off at all," Burnett recalled in an interview with Maclean's. As one might expect, this required a lot of schedule juggling, with Burnett racing from Moore's studio after taping to make it onstage for "Once Upon a Mattress" before the curtain opened. 

Eventually, Burnett hit her breaking point. "One Sunday matinee, I actually fell asleep onstage, on top of the mattresses," she recounted. "The whole show is about the fact that the princess can't fall asleep on those mattresses, but I was so tired, I just kind of passed out." Burnett wound up leaving "Once Upon a Mattress" in 1960 (replaced by future "Brady Bunch" maid Anne B. Davis), and remained with "The Gary Moore Show" until 1962.

CBS was anxious to hang onto her and signed Burnett to a 10-year deal. An unusual clause in that contract gave Burnett the option to produce 30 one-hour variety shows for the network, within the first five years, setting the stage for her greatest success.

The Carol Burnett Show made her a household name

As the five-year mark of her CBS contract approached, Carol Burnett and her second husband Joe Hamilton had just welcomed a child and purchased a new house. Needing an infusion of cash, Burnett informed the network she wanted to trigger her variety-show option. "The next day, CBS tried to talk me into a sitcom: 'A variety show is a guy's thing: Dean Martin, [Jackie] Gleason, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar," and on and on," she told Maclean's. Burnett, however, declined the offer to star in "Here's Agnes" and stuck to her guns. "Can you just picture it?" she ruefully recalled in an interview for the Academy of Achievement

Thanks to that contractual obligation, "The Carol Burnett Show" debuted in September 1967. Little did Burnett realize she was creating television history. "I didn't think about that," she told Maclean's. "I just threw it out there into the universe and said, 'Que sera, sera.'" Her goal, she said in an interview for a PBS "American Masters" documentary about her, was simply to put on the best show she possibly could. "And so we just went about trying to get the best people and put on the best show and have the most fun," she said.

That recipe proved to be the right one. "The Carol Burnett Show" show ran for 11 seasons and won a beyond-impressive 25 Emmy Awards — making Burnett one of the biggest television stars of her era.

The sweet secret behind her iconic ear tug

Throughout the 11-season run of "The Carol Burnett Show," viewers noticed Carol Burnett would give her left earlobe a small tug, usually when saying goodnight to viewers as she sang her signature sign-off song, "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together." Performing the gesture in every episode, it came to become something of a trademark for her. 

Pulling on her ear wasn't random, but a secret signal she'd concocted years earlier as a way of communicating with her beloved grandmother. "It started when my grandmother wanted me to say hello to her when I was on television," Burnett recalled in an interview with People. After explaining to her grandmother she wouldn't be able to do that, she said, "We cooked this up, to pull my ear, which meant, 'Hi Nanny, I love you, and I'm fine.' It just became a thing." In fact, Burnett's ear-pulling far outlived her grandmother; when Burnett received an honorary award at the 2019 Golden Globes, she snuck in a quick tug on her ear.

Over the years, all that ear-pulling had an impact on Burnett's earlobe. "Years ago, a reporter from Life magazine measured my left ear, and it was one millimeter longer than my right ear," Burnett wrote in her memoir, "In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox," via an excerpt shared by MeTV.

She successfully sued a supermarket tabloid over a bogus story

In 1976, Carol Burnett became infuriated when she read about herself in the pages of the National Enquirer. "At a Washington restaurant, a boisterous Carol Burnett had a loud argument with another diner, Henry Kissinger," claimed the item in the supermarket tabloid (via The New York Times). "She traipsed around the place offering everyone a bite of her dessert," and then spilled a glass of wine on another patron. Burnett insisted the story — which implied she was intoxicated — was a lie, as did Kissinger, along with several other witnesses in the restaurant. 

Burnett decided to take action and hit the Enquirer with a $10-million lawsuit that alleged the Enquirer libeled her and displayed "malicious intent" by running the false story. The case finally went to trial in 1981, and Burnett emerged victorious. As The New York Times reported, the jury in the case didn't give Burnett the $10 million she was seeking but did award her $1.6 million in damages. ”If they'd given me $1 plus car fare, I'd have been happy, because it was the principle,” Burnett told reporters after the verdict had been read. ”They didn't give a darn about my rights as a human being. I didn't do a thing to the National Enquirer; they did it to themselves.” 

The Enquirer subsequently appealed; in 1984, Burnett agreed to a settlement with the tabloid after being paid an undisclosed amount.

An unexpected foray into the world of soaps

While starring on her eponymous variety show, Carol Burnett arranged her schedule so she could grab lunch in her office while catching up with her favorite soap opera, "All My Children." Burnett's fandom was hardcore. She revealed in an interview with ABC that, when she and her husband took a month-long European vacation, she enlisted a friend to send her a telegram each Friday to recap that week's storylines. That plan blew up in her face when, while staying at a hotel in Lake Como, she was awakened in the middle of the night by a knock on the door. There stood the hotel manager, nervously shaking while presenting her with a telegram — not realizing the shocking news he was delivering was actually a week's worth of over-the-top plot twists. "The telegram said, 'Erica was kidnapped and has been found in a coma,'" Burnett recalled.

News of her fandom made it to "All My Children" creator Agnes Nixon, who contacted Burnett to see if she'd consider appearing on the show if she created a character for her. "I said, 'Absolutely!' So on my hiatus, I flew back to New York and they had a whole storyline for me," Burnett told Vulture. And that was how "All My Children" fan favorite Verla Grubbs was born. The long-lost daughter of Pine Valley con artist Langley Wallingford, Verla first appeared in 1983 and made several more appearances over the years.

A return to Broadway 30 years later

Despite the success that Carol Burnett experienced on Broadway early in her career with "Once Upon a Mattress," it was more than three decades before she returned to the Great White Way. In 1995, Burnett starred in a new musical, "Moon Over Buffalo," in which she and Philip Bosco played husband-and-wife actors in the midst of performing in two different plays, all while dealing with various personal crises and an impending visit from a Hollywood director.

Reviews were mixed, with Variety critic Jeremy Gerrard bemoaning the quality of the play itself. "Nearly every arrow falls short of the mark," Gerrard wrote in his review. He did, however, offer high praise for Burnett's performance, writing, "The happy occasion of 'Moon Over Buffalo' is the return to Broadway after 30 years of Carol Burnett." That seemed to be the consensus, with Burnett's performance ultimately earning her a Tony nomination. 

Interestingly, the Broadway production itself wasn't the only project to spring from "Moon Over Buffalo." While Burnett worked on the show, cameras had been filming her for a behind-the-scenes documentary chronicling her return to the stage — "Moon Over Broadway" — which, somewhat ironically, received far stronger reviews than the play itself. Burnett also appeared on the Broadway stage in 2014, when she served as a replacement for a few weeks in a revival of "Love Letters." 

Carol Burnett's Broadway play based on her childhood was bittersweet

Following "Moon Over Buffalo," Carol Burnett's next Broadway experience wasn't as an actor, but as a playwright. In the late 1990s, Burnett and her daughter Carrie Hamilton collaborated on writing a play together called "Hollywood Arms." Named for the ramshackle apartment building where she grew up with her grandmother, the play was based on Burnett's childhood. 

When the play opened in late 2002, the elation that Burnett should have been feeling was eclipsed by grief; her daughter had died earlier that year, succumbing to lung cancer at age 38. Burnett opened up about her mixed feelings about "Hollywood Arms" during an interview with CNN's "Larry King Live." "There are so many levels, Larry. First of all, it's about growing up with these women and my dad. So that's that. And I look at that and I see, oh my God, that really happened," Burnett said. "Then it's the level that it's a play that my daughter wrote with me ... I feel her with me constantly, whenever I'm in the theater. There's this overwhelming presence. I just feel it."

More than two decades after her death, Burnett's daughter remained a constant in her life. "There's not a day or almost a moment goes by that she's not with me," Burnett told People in 2023. "We worked together, we laughed together, we cried together. She was a force."

Carol Burnett guested on Glee, Desperate Housewives, Hawaii Five-0 and more

After the death of her daughter in 2002, Carol Burnett threw herself into acting roles. For the next two decades, she remained a sought-after guest star on television and distinguished herself in several guest spots on various shows. 

In 2006, Burnett appeared in an episode of "Desperate Housewives," at that point one of the hottest shows on television. A few years later, she delivered a high-profile performance on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," as a former Rockette at Radio City Music Hall, now the owner of a strip club, who (spoiler alert) is also a murderer. "I very much enjoyed doing 'Law & Order,' playing a killer — that was fun, and they had a family feel around the set, so it was a happy show to do even though the subject matter was quite the opposite," she told Maclean's of the experience — for which she was nominated for an Emmy. 

She also appeared in two episodes of "Glee," as the mother of Jane Lynch's Sue Sylvester. Then, she guested in "Hot in Cleveland," "Angie Tribeca," and "Hawaii-Five 0," playing the beloved aunt of protagonist Steve McGarrett (Alex O'Loughlin) in the latter. "I like the show very much, and I'm crazy about Alex, who plays McGarrett," she told WTOP. "We have some good scenes together and off camera and on camera we have a very good rapport."

Her lawsuit against Family Guy fizzled

Supermarket tabloids haven't been the only entities to feel the wrath of Carol Burnett and her lawyers. More than two decades after winning her lawsuit against the National Enquirer, in 2007 Burnett sued "Family Guy," the Fox animated series about the Griffin family of Quahog, Rhode Island. 

This time, Burnett wasn't suing for libel, but for copyright infringement, seeking $2 million in damages over an episode in which an animated version of Burnett's iconic "charwoman" character is seen mopping the floor of an adult bookstore. The studio responded dismissively. "'Family Guy,' like 'The Carol Burnett Show,' is famous for its pop culture parodies and satirical jabs at celebrities," a spokesman for 20th Century Fox Television said in a statement, as reported by Reuters. "We are surprised that Ms. Burnett, who has made a career of spoofing others on television, would go so far as to sue 'Family Guy' for a simple bit of comedy."

Unlike her earlier lawsuit, Burnett did not prevail in court. The judge dismissed her suit, ruling that the protections contained within the First Amendment permitted "Family Guy" to poke fun at public figures, including Burnett. 

A late-in-life TV comeback

While Carol Burnett's film and television output slowed down in recent years — understandable, given she celebrated her 90th birthday in 2023 — she continued to remain busy. That was certainly the case in 2022, when she guest-starred in the critically acclaimed drama "Better Call Saul," a prequel spinoff of "Breaking Bad." As she explained in an AMC interview, she's become friendly with Vince Gilligan, the creator of both series, and angled for a part. "I said, 'Listen, I'll go in and say one sentence. I don't care! But I would love to be a part of the show,'" she recalled.

Burnett was next cast in an even better role, playing society doyenne Norma Dellacorte in the 2024 Apple TV+ comedy series "Palm Royale," starring Kristen Wiig. While appearing on a panel during the Television Critics Association press tour in February 2024, Burnett told journalists that when offered "Palm Royale," she didn't need to read the script before signing on. "All I had to do was hear who was going to be in it: Kristen [Wiig], Laura [Dern], Ricky [Martin] — it's just an incredible cast," she said, via Deadline. "I wanted to work with these people and get to know them ... Of course, in the first few episodes, I'm in a coma and I still got paid. So it was a slam dunk."

As Burnett continues to be a comedy force, she and her fans continue to be glad they had this time together.