WASHINGTON —Roughly a week from now, Carol Burnett will receive the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. But despite 23 Emmy nods (winning six), 17 Golden Globe nods (winning five), a special Tony Award, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Mark Twain Prize for Humor and a Kennedy Center Honors salute, the undisputed Queen of Television Comedy never rests on her laurels.
Just last weekend, she guest starred on CBS’ “Hawaii Five-O” (2010-present), returning as Aunt Deb McGarrett in a role she has played roughly once a year since 2013. If you missed the episode “Ua Ola Loko I Ke Alaoha,” you can watch it for free online to prep for this Friday’s episode at 9 p.m. on CBS.
“I come back after I had been away for a while and I have a bucket list of stuff I want to do before I cash it in, so that’s the storyline. It’s funny, but it’s also bittersweet. … I love the writing, I like the show very much, and I’m crazy about Alex (O’Loughlin) who plays McGarrett. We have some good scenes together and off camera and on camera we have a very good rapport,” Burnett tells WTOP.
Burnett was recruited by “Five-O” star Larry Manetti, who she met during a stint on “Magnum P.I.” (1980-1988). She was also a big fan of the original “Hawaii Five-O” (1968-1980) as it aired almost concurrently with her own wildly popular comedy series “The Carol Burnett Show” (1967-1978).
While Burnett praises the revamped “Five-O,” she says other remakes can be unnecessary.
“It depends. Sometimes I think they’re probably pretty good, and sometimes I think they should be left alone. There are certain movies that shouldn’t, like a classic like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ I don’t think you can do that any better than what it was. You know what I’m saying?'”
Instead of remaking classics, Burnett preferred to roast them. While “The Carol Burnett Show” won 28 Emmys and eight Golden Globes, its iconic “Gone with the Wind” spoof reigns supreme.
“It wasn’t exactly a remake; it was a total send-up. Our excuse was at that time when we were doing it … (‘GWTW’) was going to be rereleased in the movie theaters, so our premise was: For those of you who can’t sit through it for four hours, we’ll do it for you now in about 20 minutes.”
The result was the hilarious “Went with the Wind,” which aired Nov. 13, 1976 on CBS. It cast Burnett as a spoof of Scarlett O’Hara, Harvey Korman as a spoof of Rhett Butler, Dinah Shore as a spoof of Melanie, Vicki Lawrence as a spoof of Prissy and Tim Conway as a spoof of Ashley Wilkes.
“It was brilliantly written by two of our young writers, then of course the iconic costume that Bob Mackie came up with can’t be beat. It was one of the funniest sight gags on television ever when he came up with the idea of putting the curtain rod under that dress. It was heavy!” Burnett recalls.
“Nobody had seen it until we were taping, and the crew and of course the audience, it was a major, major laugh. … I was biting the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing because I didn’t want to spoil it. We broke up a lot, but we never intended to or wanted to. It was usually Tim Conway’s fault.”
Conway’s most famous “break up” attempt came during an ad-libbed elephant speech with “The Family.” Vicki Lawrence was rather new to the show and didn’t like breaking character on set, so she patiently waited for Conway to finish his improvisation before quipping, “Are you sure that little ***hole’ is through?” Conway and co-star Dick Van Dyke literally fell off the couch in laughter, giving birth to a new TV monster as Mama got her own sitcom spinoff with “Mama’s Family” (1983-1990).
“I didn’t grow up on television, so by the time I was really watching anything regularly I was in New York living in a boarding house. I would watch ‘Caesar’s Hour’ every Saturday. So Sid Caesar to me, he was an idol. And I think when I got my show, I wanted it to be like the ‘The Gary Moore Show’ that I was on as a second banana, but also like Sid, to have a riff company, do sketches and movie takeoffs.”
The movie takeoffs were comedy gold for Burnett, who fell in love with classic movies thanks to her grandmother, who raised her after being born to alcoholic parents in 1933. Thus, “The Carol Burnett Show” tore into not only “Gone With the Wind,” but an array of film classics of the 1940s and 1950s.
“We got a really good response with ‘Pillow Talk,’ a takeoff on that. We did a take off on ‘Mildred Pierce,’ ‘From Here to Eternity,’ ‘Double Indemnity,’ all those good old movies. … ‘African Queen.'”
Wouldn’t ya know it? Burnett went on to work with many of those film’s directors in her own future movie roles. We ended our Q&A with a rapid-fire rundown of her memories of each filmmaker:
Billy Wilder — ‘The Front Page’ (1974)
“He never did coverage of anything. He knew that if he was going to have a scene with a bunch of people in it, that would be it. He wouldn’t go and do the scene over and over again with close-ups. Or, if it was going to be a close-up of Jack Lemmon, that was it for that scene. He had it all planned out.”
Robert Altman — ‘A Wedding’ (1978)
“I loved working with Robert Altman. (My favorites are) ‘M*A*S*H’ or ‘Nashville.’ He loved it if you improvised. He got us all together before we were going to do ‘A Wedding’ … and he said something I never heard a director say before or since. He said, ‘If any of you have an idea of a scene that you’re doing for dialogue or how you want to play it, I want you to come to me with your suggestion because some of the best scenes I’ve ever had in my movies are brought to me by the actors.’ Wow!”
Alan Alda — ‘The Four Seasons’ (1981)
“He wore several hats for that film. He was the writer, director, the star and I think co-producer.”
Peter Bogdanovich — ‘Noises Off …’ (1992)
“I just loved his stories that he would tell. He loved telling stories. And he was very sweet, actually.”
John Huston — ‘Annie’ (1982)
“He would do maybe one take and that would be it. He was very planned out. He knew exactly what he wanted. I don’t think we did more than two takes on a scene. One of my favorite pieces of direction he ever gave me was, the first day I was going to be shooting a scene, I went up to him and I said, ‘Mr. Huston, how do you want me to play this?’ … And he said, ‘Just cavort, dear. Just cavort.”
If you told Burnett as a child that she would one day work with the likes of Wilder, Huston and Altman, she simply wouldn’t have believed it. In fact, she never even considered showbiz an option.
“As a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist and then later I wanted to be a journalist, so the bug didn’t bite for me with show business until I got to UCLA. … I joined ‘The Daily Bruin’ and I took a class in theater arts English because it offered playwriting courses. … I got into this acting class and I did a funny scene and I heard the laugh and I thought, ‘Ohhh. That’s really nice!’ That’s when it happened.”
The world now sends a giant thank you to whoever laughed at her in that acting class.
Just those few laughs changed so much. We’re all so glad we had this time together.
“I never dreamed I would wind up doing this,” she says. “But I’m sure happy I did.”
And so, just like Burnett did for her beloved grandmother, WTOP offers a final tug on the ear.
So many people in life will pull your leg, but only a rare few will pull their ear for you.
Listen to the full interview with Carol Burnett at the top of the article.
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