EXCLUSIVE: Carol Burnett talks work, famous friends and the importance of giving back

As she approaches her 91st birthday, Carol Burnett is having more fun than ever. Ahead of a new TV project, the icon chats to The Weekly about making new friends, the importance of giving back and missing her friend and mentor, Lucille Ball.

Carol Burnett has a special place in Australian history. When the Sydney Opera House opened in 1973, her eponymous variety series had the honour of being the first TV show to play at the iconic venue.

“Oh my gosh, the audiences there were so wonderful,” she says, half a decade on as she calls The Weekly to talk about her latest project. “We had such a great time.”

The Carol Burnett Show launched in 1967, running for 11 years and making household names of its core cast – Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman and Lyle Waggoner – and picking up 25 Emmys along the way.

It was a huge production, with 12 dancers, two guest stars per week, a 28-piece orchestra and iconic costume designer Bob Mackie creating outfits for every sketch – over 17,000 in total.

It was, says Carol, “11 years of laughter” and an experience that would cement her path of working in a collaborative environment; one in which every member of the team had their moment to shine. That spirit is what has attracted her to her latest project, a role in Apple TV+ series Palm Royale. Set in 1967, the lavish dramedy stars Kristen Wiig. Carol, who turns 91 on April 26, plays Norma Dellacorte – a grand dame of Palm Beach society who, as the series opens (spoiler alert), is lying in a coma.

She calls us from her home in LA to reveal why this was a dream job, for more reasons than you would think …

Carol Burnett starring as Norma Dellacorte in Palm Royale.

Your character spends the entire first episode comatose in bed. Did you enjoy the lying around part of this job?

It was funny, because I would just get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, get all dressed up and go right back to bed for the scene. At one point, it was the end of the day, and I was just lying there and I get to go home and I said, “You mean I’m getting paid for this?” [Laughs].

What drew you to the series?

I hadn’t even read a script. But when they told me Kristen Wiig, Allison Janney, Laura Dern, Ricky Martin, Josh Lucas – all these wonderful people were going to be in it – I said: “Okay, I’m in. I don’t care what you want me to do, I just would love to work with these people.” The icing on the cake was that it was a great script.

Had you met any of the cast before?

No. It was the first time and I really hope to be with them again soon. It was really wonderful for me at this time in my life, I’m making all kinds of new friends. A couple of years ago I did a guest spot on Better Call Saul so I made new friends with Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn and Vince Gilligan, the creative. Now to have Kristen and Laura and all of them? It’s like I’ve got a whole bunch of new friends at my age, and I love it.

Jayme Lemons, Carol Burnett, Katie O’Connell, Ricky Martin, Laura Dern, Josh Lucas, Abe Sylvia and Amber Chardae Robinson of Palm Royale for TV Guide Magazine. (Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images)

Making friends when you get older can be hard.

Yes. We’re all very close, everybody was just having such a good time. I don’t want to sound too corny, but we really loved each other and supported each other. It was just a joy.

We hear that you and Allison play Wordle together these days?

Yes, we are Wordle buddies!

Who is winning?

We are pretty even. Although in the past three weeks I’ve got Wordle four times in one.

That’s impressive!

The other day the word was “stash”. For some reason my husband [musician Brian Miller] was talking about how, way back 100 years ago, my mother had a parakeet and she named it Stash. That morning he said, “Why don’t you put that in your Wordle?” So I’ll be darned, that was the word. I should buy a lottery ticket!

Carol as Shirley Temple on The Carol Burnett Show in 1967. (Photo: CBS via Getty Images)

The Carol Burnett Show had your name on the marquee, but it was collaboration with your co-stars, you’ve always said, that made it work. Why is that?

Exactly. I wanted everybody to score a touchdown because that only made the show better. When I first started out many, many years ago I was second banana, they call it – the supporting character – on The Garry Moore Show. It was a very popular variety show in the ’60s. So was a gentleman named Durward Kirby. We would sit around and read the script for that week and if Garry had some kind of punchline or a joke or something he would look at it and say, “You know what? Give this line to Carol. Or give this line to Durward. They can say it funnier than I can.” He shared it, he was not an egotistical star of his own show. I took that from him.

When you were an aspiring actress, a benefactor loaned you $1000 to get yourself to New York and the world of musical comedy.  Does that also drive you to give back to others?

Absolutely. I remember when the gentleman lent me the money there were four stipulations. He said, “It’s a loan, so you pay it back when you can with no interest. You must use the money to go to New York with. You must never reveal my name. And if you are successful, you must help other people out.”

And did you?

I was able to pay him back exactly five years to the day. Evidently, his wife told me, someone had helped him out when he came to this country – he wasn’t born in America – and he became at that time a millionaire in the ship building business. So, he paid it forward and I paid it forward. It’s a good thing. It’s a good feeling.

Carol and Lucille ham it up on Carol’s TV show in 1967. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Who else would you credit with helping you in your early years?

Well, Lucille Ball. She was a mentor. I first met her when she came to see me in an off-Broadway show called Once Upon a Mattress, she was 22 years older than I. She came to my funky little dressing room after the show and visited for about 25 minutes. She called me “kid”. And she said, “Kid, if you ever need me for anything I am at your beck and call.”

When did you call on that help?

A few years later I was going to do a special for CBS if I could get a major guest star. The producer said, “You’ve got to call Lucy.” But I didn’t want to bother her. And he said, “All she can do is say, ‘I’d love to help you, but I can’t’.” So, I got up the courage and made the call. And she said, “Oh kid, you’re doing great, what’s going on?” So I said, “Well, I don’t want to bother you but I’ve got this special … ” And she interrupted me and said, “Well, when do you want me?” So, she was my guest star and from then on, we became friends. She even gave me a baby shower.

Lucy was a mentor and friend to Carol. (Photo: Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images)

That must have been wonderful.

It was. We were very close. She always sent me flowers on my birthday with “Happy birthday kid”. The morning of my 56th birthday on April 26, I turned on the Today Show and Lucy had died on my birthday. I was just dumbfounded. And that afternoon, I got her flowers. “Happy birthday kid.” There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. She dips in and out of my heart a lot. And I am close friends with little Lucie, her daughter, who is a very special young lady. It was like family, really. She was a mentor and a big sister when you put it that way.

Your work roster is so full. Is anyone telling you to slow down and take a load off?

Well, I have been very busy these past couple of years when I wasn’t that busy before – it comes and goes in waves. I’ll always do something if it sounds like it’s going to be fun. And I get offers a lot which is really incredible at 90 years old. So, it depends on what is offered to me and how I am feeling. And so far, I feel good. I laugh about it, but I have all my parts – I have my knees and my hips and my brain, thank God. As long as I am healthy enough and excited enough about something, I will do it. AWW

Palm Royale is coming to Apple TV+ on March 20.

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