Vicki Lawrence: How Carol Burnett Once Saved My Job

Ahead of Burnett receiving an honorary Golden Globe TV career award named for her, the longtime collaborator shares memories of their friendship and reveals how 'Mama's Family' really found its voice in the ladies room.
Courtesy of Photofest
From left: Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway and Carol Burnett on 'The Carol Burnett Show' doing a sketch from "The Family"

In the late 1960s, Vicki Lawrence sent a letter to Carol Burnett, enclosing a newspaper article in which a reporter noted their resemblance. At the time, Burnett was searching for an actress to play her sister on what would become the pioneering CBS hit The Carol Burnett Show. After receiving the letter, Burnett, then pregnant with her first child, drove to Inglewood (the location of the Hollywood Park Racetrack) to see Lawrence perform at the Fireman's Ball. "She used to tell a funny story about coming down the freeway and her husband saying, 'What the hell is she, a jockey?' And Carol said, 'You know what? I have a hunch. I'm pregnant, just indulge me,'" says Lawrence, 69.

The star of Fox's The Cool Kids shared stories from her decades collaborating with Burnett (her interview is condensed and edited here) ahead of her 85-year-old friend and mentor's Golden Globes career honor.

What happened after Carol crowned you the winner after coming to see you at the Fireman's Ball?

In January, they announced on the radio that Carol had the baby and was at Saint John's. I was on my way to a recording session with a group I sang with called the Young Americans, and I told the guy I was ride-sharing with to go by the hospital so I could say hi because I had not heard from her. He didn't think I could get in to see her, but I knew her married name. I went to maternity and as polite as I could be, said, "I'm here to see Mrs. Hamilton." They looked at me and said, "You must be her sister, Chrissie." She was very sweet and said she had not forgotten me and promised to call me soon.

The next thing that happened: I got a call to come to CBS. They explained the show they were putting together and asked if I'd audition to play her sister. The suits [executives] came and asked Carol if we could get a "real actress" because I was "very rough." And Carol said, "Yes, she's a diamond in the rough." Carol says [the casting] would have happened one way or the other but I don't think so; I thought I was going to be a dental hygienist!

Carol thought you would have been cast on the show were it not for her?

We used to get cross-examined by newspaper people when I was first on the show because they were sure we'd made the whole damn thing up as a publicity story. One day Carol told me this story about sitting at home, recuperating from having her baby, and getting a call from her manager in New York who was watching The Andy Williams Show and saw the Young Americans. He called her in L.A. and said, "I'm watching TV and I have found the kid to play your sister." And Carol said, "Really? Who is she?" He replied, "I don't know her name, but she sings with the Young Americans and she looks just like you." And Carol said, "I've already met her." It was like it was meant to be one way or the other just based on her crazy hunch, which she had a lot.

She was just talking the other day about Ken Berry [who would go on to co-star in Carol Burnett Show spinoff Mama's Family alongside Lawrence] and saw him on the Billy Barnes Review before he did anything else on TV and did the same thing with Bernadette Peters after seeing her in an off-Broadway production shortly before The Carol Burnett Show went on the air. She was one of the first guests ever booked. Carol gets these hunches and just helps people, which was part of the deal with her in the beginning.

How so?

She got this donation from this person who asked to remain anonymous. He'd said, "I want you to pay it back. I want you to go to New York on my dime because I think you're really good. The stipulations are you pay me back and that you help others along the way." I never found out who he was because that was another stipulation, but Carol said he used to come to the tapings.

You were 18 when you started on The Carol Burnett Show. What did you learn about comedy from her?

Aside from the craft of being funny, I learned how you would like the business of show business to run. There wasn't room for egos or crazy behavior; you just didn't do that. It was a nurturing environment. If you were doing something incredibly funny and she wasn't in the sketch, she'd be the first one out of her dressing room, standing on the stage, leading the laughter with the audience.

Harvey Korman used to talk about how most stars will rewrite things so that they get the joke or the good part. Carol was all about [the adage that] you are only as good as the people who surround you. She would cheer for everybody around her, in support of the whole rather than just herself. You don't run into that too often in show business anymore. Now that I'm doing Fox's The Cool Kids, it's the furthest I've ever felt from Carol. I feel like I've been homeschooled.

Your role as Mama in "The Family" sketch was created for her…

When Carol saw the final draft, she said [daughter] Eunice was the part that spoke to her. She and [costume designer] Bob Mackie decided I should play Mama. The writers were upset when Carol said Mama was like Tennessee Williams on acid and that we'd do "The Family" as Southern. They walked out of the rehearsal hall.

Carol and I almost always ran into each other in the ladies room before our run-throughs because they were nerve-wracking. She called it Judgment at Nuremberg. And the first day we ever did a "Family" for the run-through, I'm in the restroom stall trying to settle myself. I hear the voice in the stall next to me say, "Mama?" I said, "What the hell is it, Eunice?" And we started doing Eunice and Mama. She says, "Do you got any toilet paper over there?" I said, "I'm busy right now, Eunice!" We start screaming and yelling: "Well, I just need a couple pieces of paper!" "I'll get you your paper when I'm done doin' what I'm doin', damn it!" When we came out, we high-fived and said it was going to be great.

What was your craziest day?

During a cameraman strike, we did a big musical number called "The Transylvania Trot" — Vincent Price was the guest — that went pretty late. Taping just took forever. [Co-star] Lyle Waggoner rolled a joint for us in Harvey's dressing room. All of us but Carol smoked. We were all out of control! She was so pissed off when she found out! (Laughs.) We laughed a lot but we shot it — and had to do a couple pickup shots.

What's a favorite memory of Carol?

In 1975, she saved my job. I never knew at the time how close I came to being fired. It was right before my daughter, Courtney, was born. CBS had almost laid me off for being pregnant. Back in the day, there were so many weird clauses — pregnancy was in your deformity clause. But Carol missed doing "The Family" sketches so much that she said, "Bring Vicki back." I remember they wrote a sketch where I [as Mama] was covered in blankets [to conceal the pregnancy]. I'd joke about my daughter coming out and being suffocated because she was under all those blankets!

And Carol found my husband for me. Al [Schultz] had just gotten into the makeup union, and Carol was sitting in her dressing room and Al walked by. She told her secretary that he was adorable and wanted him on the show. Carol has been largely responsible for most everything in my adult life.

What's the ideal logline for the Carol Burnett Award?

It has to be somebody who has had a long and diverse career and someone who has lived their dream — but who is also remarkably special in real life, who is giving, sharing and nurturing and kind. Boy, it's going to have to be somebody special.

A version of this story appears in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.