WE’RE LIKE FAM­ILY

THE COM­EDY LE­GENDS OPEN UP ABOUT THEIR FA­VORITE MEM­O­RIES, DECADES-LONG FRIEND­SHIP AND WHY THEY’RE CLOSER THAN EVER

Closer Weekly - - Cover Story - — Re­port­ing by Amanda Cham­pag­neMead­ows and Ilyssa Panitz

When Vicki Lawrence started on her new Fox sit­com, The Cool Kids, she found try­ing to get back in the groove of a reg­u­lar TV gig wasn’t easy. “I haven’t done this in a while,” she tells Closer. So she asked her long­time men­tor and friend, Carol Bur­nett, for ad­vice. “I emailed Carol and said, ‘How do you do it all? I need some Ger­i­tol!’ Carol said, ‘I guess it’s Red Bull now!’ We laughed about it.”

Carol, 85, and Vicki, 69, have known each other for more than 50 years and they both value their friend­ship. “I’m like her big sis­ter,” Carol tells Closer. When she dis­cov­ered Vicki and hired her for The Carol Bur­nett Show, the two ini­tially had a teacher-stu­dent re­la­tion­ship — “I went for 11 years to the Har­vard school of com­edy,” Vicki says. Their rap­port en­deared them to au­di­ences. “You could ac­tu­ally feel the team work,” Her­bie J. Pi­lato, founder of the Clas­sic TV Preser­va­tion So­ci­ety, tells Closer. “They knew each other’s comic man­ner­isms and ex­actly how to make each line fun­nier and deeper.” And their pro­fes­sional con­nec­tion de­vel­oped into a last­ing bond. “Carol was on a pedestal for me for years,” Vicki ad­mits. “But our friend­ship is much stronger now.” Adds Carol, “We see each other as of­ten as we can.”

THE EARLY YEARS

Carol and Vicki had very dif­fer­ent child­hoods, and yet they ended up in a sim­i­lar spot. Both grew up in Cal­i­for­nia, but Carol’s par­ents were al­co­holics and she lived mostly with her grand­mother. “Daddy just got

sweeter when he drank,” Carol says. “[But] Mama was a frus­trated al­co­holic.” In fact, Carol’s mother “would some­times cuff her around,” Su­san Horowitz, author of Queens of Com­edy, tells Closer. “Carol came out of that kind of back­ground where com­edy is a de­fense — be­fore you can say I’m ugly, I’ll say it and I’ll say it funny.”

Carol em­braced per­form­ing in col­lege. “They laughed and it felt great,” she says. “All of a sud­den, af­ter so much cold­ness and empti­ness in my life, I knew the sen­sa­tion of all that warmth.” By 1959 she landed roles on Broad­way in Once Upon a Mat­tress and on TV’s The Garry Moore Show, for which she won an Emmy. “When I got my own show, Garry’s was the one I wanted to copy,” she re­calls. “Mu­sic, com­edy sketches, a rep com­pany…the whole ball of wax.”

Six­teen years Carol’s ju­nior, Vicki grew up in a hap­pier home. She’d joined the mu­si­cal group The Young Amer­i­cans in high school, and per­formed at the Os­cars where a doc­u­men­tary on the group nabbed an award. But Vicki swears she hadn’t planned to go into show­biz: “I hon­estly thought I was go­ing to go to col­lege, study den­tal hy­giene, marry a rich den­tist and hang it up.”

But in her se­nior year, Vicki en­tered a lo­cal tal­ent con­test, and when a re­porter wrote a story not­ing how much she looked like Carol Bur­nett, Vicki wrote a fan let­ter to Carol and sent the clip­ping. Carol, who was look­ing for some­one to play her lit­tle sis­ter on her new va­ri­ety show, de­cided to take a look. “I dis­cov­ered Vicki when she was 17 and I will take credit for it,” Carol boasts. She even pre­sented the top prize at the con­test…to Vicki!

CHEM­ISTRY LESSONS

Vicki’s col­lege plans got di­verted when she joined The Carol Bur­nett Show. “We got her when she was 18, and boy did she grow,” Carol says. As the only women cast mem­bers, their chem­istry was magic. “There were so many men, so they re­ally had a spe­cial bond,” James Sheri­dan, of the Paley Cen­ter for Me­dia, tells Closer. “They were both ver­sa­tile, so they could play mother and daugh­ter, friends or ri­vals so eas­ily.”

Off­screen there was never a ri­valry, although Vicki ad­mits she was in­tim­i­dated “to be plucked out of high school and stuck in that arena with all of these peo­ple who are the best at their craft.” She strug­gled to fit in with Carol, Tim Con­way, Har­vey Kor­man and the oth­ers, partly be­cause she was younger while they were mar­ried and hav­ing ba­bies. Says Vicki, “I was sin­gle and dat­ing ush­ers at CBS!”

Vicki im­proved with Carol’s help. “She ab­sorbed ev­ery­thing like a sponge,” Carol says. And Vicki got a valu­able ed­u­ca­tion about Hol­ly­wood: “I learned by watch­ing how the busi­ness of show busi­ness should be run.”

Com­edy wasn’t their only con­nec­tion. “They both had such mu­si­cal tal­ent,” says Sheri­dan. In fact, Vicki had a brief singing ca­reer af­ter her song “The Night the Lights Went Out in Ge­or­gia,” writ­ten by her first hus­band, Bobby Rus­sell, went to No. 1. “That song be­came a hit and the whole mar­riage just went down­hill,” she says. In 1973, Carol pre­sented a gold record to Vicki on their show.

By that point, Vicki was hold­ing her own with her col­leagues. “We cast her as Mama,” Carol re­calls of the skits that later were spun off into Vicki’s 1983–’90 sit­com Mama’s Fam­ily. “Here I am 16 years older than she is, and she is play­ing my mother,” Carol says, “but she was great!” In one fa­mous skit, Tim im­pro­vised a story about Si­amese twin ele­phants, and Vicki cracked up the en­tire cast by out­do­ing her men­tors with an ad lib. “Vicki topped [Tim],” Carol re­calls. “The whole place ex­ploded!”

NEXT CHAP­TERS

Vicki, who mar­ried the show’s makeup artist Al Schultz, says she truly felt a part of the group when

Carol threw her a baby shower for her first child, Court­ney, now 43 (she also has a son, Gar­rett, 41). “Carol had a huge cake that said ‘Happy La­bor Day,’ ” Vicki re­calls.

When the show ended in 1978, Carol, who was mar­ried to Joe Hamil­ton and had three daugh­ters, went on to other roles, in­clud­ing in 1982’s big screen ver­sion of An­nie. Mean­while Vicki thrived on Mama’s Fam­ily, and Carol oc­ca­sion­ally guest­starred. “Mama’s Fam­ily had a lot of the same peo­ple that were on the Bur­nett show,” Vicki says. “I’m thank­ful for ev­ery­thing they taught me.”

Even through hard times, the two kept in touch. Vicki stood by Carol when her mar­riage broke up in 1984 as she strug­gled to help their el­dest daugh­ter, Car­rie, com­bat ad­dic­tion. “I put her in a third re­hab place, and oh, my God, she hated me,” Carol says. And Vicki was ready to lend an ear when Car­rie, who’d got­ten sober, died from can­cer at age 38 in 2002. “I didn’t want to get out of bed for a while,” Carol says. But Vicki and Carol’s new hus­band, Brian Miller, whom she’d mar­ried a year be­fore, were “pil­lars of sup­port as Carol grieved,” an in­sider tells Closer.

To­day, the friends try to see each other “as of­ten as we can,” Carol says. As Vicki is work­ing on The Cool Kids, in which she plays a sassy re­tire­ment home res­i­dent, Vicki says, “I think so fondly of Carol al­most ev­ery day!” She even hopes she can con­vince her to make a guest ap­pear­ance. “I would give my right arm to have her be on this show,” she tells Closer. It seems likely, since, as Carol tells Closer, “We are like fam­ily.”

“I’m so happy with what has hap­pened in my life.” — Carol

"Vicki started out play­ing my lit­tle sis­ter and wound up play­ing my mama,"Carol quips. Vicki and Carolre­united to cel­e­brate their show’s 50th an­niver­saryin 2017.

“I think of her ev­ery day,” Carol says of daugh­ter Car­rie, sec­ond from left, with sis­ters Erin and Jody. “Oh, grow up,” Vicki (with god­daugh­ter Kendall Woot­ten, son Gar­rett, daugh­ter Court­ney and hus­band Al) told the au­di­ence when her an­swer on a 2015 episode of Celebrity Fam­ily Feud drew a big laugh.“He’s funny and not eas­ily in­tim­i­dated,” Carol says of hus­band Brian Miller.

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