Carol Burnett was born in 1933 in San Antonio, Texas. Her parents separated before she turned four, and she lived with her grandmother until the age of seven. She moved with her grandmother to Hollywood, where her mother, an aspiring writer, was living in a boarding house. Burnett and her grandmother took up residence in a room down the hall, where they lived for the next 15 years.
As a child, Burnett enjoyed play-acting and secretly wanted to be an actress. She enrolled at UCLA and majored in journalism but soon switched to theater. At the end of her freshman year, she was elected “Most Promising Newcomer.” While still a junior, Burnett decided to go to New York to find work in musical comedies on Broadway. While performing at a society party, Burnett met a benefactor, who loaned her $1,000 on three conditions: she must never reveal his name, she had to pay back the loan within five years, and she had to help others in the future if she became successful.
It took five years for Burnett to win her first starring role in Once Upon a Mattress and to repay her loan. During those years, she lived at the Rehearsal Club, a residence hall for struggling young actresses, and supported herself working as a hatcheck girl.
After a 13-week engagement on a children’s television show hosted by ventriloquist Paul Winchell, Burnett became a regular on the Garry Moore Show, where she spent three years. Throughout the 1960s, Burnett juggled projects on Broadway and television. She starred in a number of televised specials, returning to Los Angeles in 1967 to begin what would become the longest-running musical comedy variety show in television history: the Emmy-winning Carol Burnett Show. Although its 11-year run kept her busy, she managed to do stage productions, specials, and feature films, including The Four Seasons and Annie.
In 2005, Burnett appeared in the television production of Once Upon a Mattress and in an episode of Desperate Housewives. She has also done voice parts for several animated movies such as Horton Hears a Who (2008) and The Trumpet of the Swan (2001).
Burnett is the winner of five Golden Globe Awards. She received an Emmy in 1962 for her television special with Julie Andrews called Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall. In 2003, she was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors; in 2005, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“I love doing it all,” she said when asked what she has enjoyed most about her career. “Drama, comedy, and music—in all its formats—stage, film, and TV. By doing a variety show, I was never labeled with one persona. I’ve done everyone from Groucho Marx to Bugs Bunny to Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. It’s all been great fun.”
A positive thinker, Burnett’s advice to young people is to learn how to handle rejection. “We are rejected, even after you’ve reached a certain level of success,” she says. “Learn to not take it personally. Those who continue to pursue what they believe in become successful because they didn’t allow the negativity to get to them.”