WE’RE LIKE FAMILY
THE COMEDY LEGENDS OPEN UP ABOUT THEIR FAVORITE MEMORIES, DECADES-LONG FRIENDSHIP AND WHY THEY’RE CLOSER THAN EVER
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!
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!”
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.