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Carol Burnett: no kidding.


Carol Burnett waves her robedarm from the doorway of her dressing room, the second of four or five long trailers parked side by side on a cramped lot.

"You sure know how to cutthrough the turnip patch,' she yells as I make my way around the chainlink fence and over the already trampled vines. "I like that,' she adds.

She had passed me earlier and recognizedme, and had suggested we meet in seven minutes. I dawdled, and while I talked with Ralph Wood, a Fresno reporter who plays a Fresno reporter in Carol's new miniseries called (what else?) Fresno, she sent a messenger to find me. First lesson: Carol Burnett doesn't kid around. At least not all the time.

She's used to interviews from bothsides of the tape recorder. While a student at Hollywood High she interviewed the actor Joel McCrea, considered becoming a journalist, then switched dreams and moved over to show business instead. She grew up looking at autographed pictures of Rita Hayworth, George Montgomery, Bob Hope, and others, all signed "To Lou,' her mother, a writer. Like mother, like daughter? Lou would have approved, but Carol had other ideas.

For our interview she's discardedher bulky costume and slipped into something more comfortable--nothing diaphanous, mind you, just sturdy --in true Burnett tradition. Outside, Manhattan Place, a street that sounds as if it belonged on a board game, is busy. The CBS-MTM film crew is preparing for Carol's next run-through with Anthony Heald, who plays her younger son. For most of summer 1986, she has assumed the on-camera character of Charlotte Kensington, the widowed matriarch of the Kensington family, the famed Fresno raisin moguls.

"This,' she says, referring to thelong hours on the set, "is not healthy.' She pours us some bottled water, the kind you see in Southern California supermarkets. "We eat on the run; we only have a half-hour for lunch, and when we get home we have to make a decision: "Do I eat or sleep tonight?' Usually I opt for sleep, otherwise I miss precious hours of rest,' she says.

She's concerned about nutrition,an about-face from her early years in San Antonio, Texas, and later in California, when her dietary staples included anything deep-fried. She cheerfully announces that, mending her ways, she has sworn off enchiladas almost entirely.

"I plan on using more commonsense in the future when it comes to my eating habits,' she promises stoically. "More fruit and vegetables. I don't eat much meat, fish, or poultry.' Here she laughs before delivering her next line: "After all, you never know what they are doing to the water and all the other stuff.'

Working long hours on the miniseriesand squeezing in a book tour to promote her memoirs, One More Time (Random House, 1986), may put a crimp in her nutrition plans, but you can bet she'll try. Don't count on much will power during Thanksgiving, though. It's her favorite holiday "because there are no strings attached,' and she plans to spend it eating with her daughters. "I love it all,' she says, "the regular corny stuff--turkey, cranberries, stuffing, and sweet-potato pie.'

"Rootless' for three years, sheclaims that she has lived out of suitcases --11, to be exact. "One for winter boots, one for winter coats and sweaters, another for my book manuscript, and so on,' she recounts. Such mobility has taught her to prefer simple things. Earlier in her career, when success and money started to pour in, she indulged in posh homes and expensive cars, trying to prove to herself she had "made it.' More recently she has settled into a new house with a small yard, a modest pool, and flowers. "Now it's home,' she says.

Although she hasn't lived inHawaii for several years, she would like to buy some land in Honolulu to be near her sister's family and her "best buddy,' Jim Nabors. But California will do for the present, and the comedy Fresno is a natural. Although it's light fare, cast members are playing it straight. There are no oncamera winks, as one reporter claimed: The humor comes from the story line and the witty situations. Fresno is a satire, pure and simple, with a bit of truth present even in the ridiculous.

"I've met real-life people likeCharlotte Kensington,' she says of her character. "You can spot them. They're really into how they present themselves to the world. Charlotte is like a hamster on one of those wheels. She has a one-track mind. She's the kind of person who would do her hair while looking at her reflection in your glasses.'

What Carol has learned about actingshe has picked up firsthand from life and from her experiences at UCLA and with the Stumptown Players. Her initial training in theory came from working with Robert Altman. He taught her how to write a sketch about the character she was portraying so she could understand that character in-depth.

The exercise wasn't necessaryfor playing Charlotte, however. "In the script, Charlotte talks about her family, about how hard they had it when she and her late husband first started. You get the feeling that they must have been very much in love. But she's an over-the-hill Southern belle. She's into lip gloss, hair mousse, raisins, and her kids,' Carol says.

More than anything, the costumes,specially designed by Bob Mackie, helped Carol to assume her role. She says: "You know, children are the best actors in the world. They become whatever the costume they are wearing tells them they are. This happens with adults as well. Go to a black-tie dinner and watch. They would all act differently if they had on sneakers.'

Burnett also learns from other actors.She says of Dabney Coleman, her miniseries adversary: "I see how he conserves himself, how he is right on the money every time, how he doesn't embellish it with anything. He is as simple and as true as you can get. That makes it twice as funny. I just hope I'm more of that.'

She admits to changing a lot overthe years. ("We don't stop going to school when we graduate.') Not afraid to own up to mistakes, she takes herself to task when she thinks she's out of line. She also has a track record of taking to task other wrongdoers. Her most notable public battle, with the National Enquirer, challenged the flamboyant tabloid's 1976 statement that, while dining in a ritzy Washington restaurant, Carol Burnett had tried to share her dessert with others in a manner that clearly indicated she was tipsy. The story claimed she spilled wine on other diners, had water thrown on her, and had argued with Henry Kissinger.

In attempting to provemalice on the part of the Enquirer, Burnett's lawyer secured affidavits from two restaurant employees who swore they had informed the tabloid the story it was about to publish was not true. The $10 million lawsuit resulted in a $1.6 million award, but the sum was later reduced to $800,000. Burnett happily confirms, "I would have been happy with one dollar and carfare.' In retrospect, she says she's glad she did it, but she is not too sure what she accomplished by the lawsuit. "I don't know what the long-term effect of my victory is,' she says. "I think it has changed people's thinking about going after such publications if you can afford it. You can puncture that balloon if you are stubborn enough, and you could sink those rags if you only had the money.'

From the financial settlement sheestablished two $100,000 scholarships for the study of journalistic ethics at the University of Hawaii and at the University of California at Berkeley. If future journalists have benefited from her efforts, she too has learned from the experience. "To make anything work for you that isn't pleasant, you have to look at it as helping to create a balance in your life,' she says. "You have to go through the falling down in order to learn to walk. It helps to know that you can survive it. That's an education in itself. The next time something bad happens you can say, "I will survive.''

She believes forgiveness is a keyto good mental health, and she prides herself on not holding a grudge. "There's nothing more debilitating than rage,' Burnett says. "It can make you sick. Yes, it's easier said than done to let something go. But you can let it go.'

For 2 1/2 years she dealt with herpast and with forgiveness as she wrote what she calls a "letter to my daughters.' The letter turned into a book, or what could evolve into a series of books. One More Time covers the first 26 years of her life. She holds nothing back, and the reader, privy to the candid details contained in the letter, feels as if he'd steamed open the envelope. She views the letter as a legacy; she wanted her daughters to know what it was like for her to grow up. "I wish my mother had left me something about how she felt growing up. I wish my grandmother had done the same. I wanted my girls to know me,' she says.

The three scenes she sayswere the easiest to write but the hardest to relive were the moments she last saw her father, her mother, and her grandmother alive. But recalling the typical things she did as a teen-ager, thinking that she was the only person in the world "going through it,' brought laughter. "It tickled me to go back and relive those moments. My mother used to say, "Some comedy is tragedy plus time,'' she concludes.

Burnett's voice takes on a differenttone when she talks about her daughters. Warmth, pride, and hope are matched by a sparkle in her eyes. She pauses as she thinks about the girls and about their qualities she most admires. "Two come in mind,' she says. "Humor and kindness. The girls are different, but each has humor and kindness. I admire those qualities in all people, but I particularly want my daughters to be thoughtful and kind. That sounds very Pollyannish, I know. It's also selfish because it makes you feel good when you help others. I've been helped by acts of kindness from strangers. That's why we're here, after all, to help others.'

Burnett recommends memoirwriting for everyone. She marvels at the insight gained by looking at herself at age 12 from her current vantage point. The exercise has caused her to view her parents in kinder terms. "To realize that, my gosh, they were doing the best they could with what they had! Of course, when I was 12 I didn't understand that. It's been a revelation to me. They were all right. A bit kooky, and crazy, and maddening, and all those things that we lay on our parents,' she says.

The book's candor is refreshing, ifnot surprising. Burnett's honesty has been applauded on numerous occasions, most notably in October 1979, when she went public with her daughter Carrie's drug problem. Carol's plan--to offer the facts and avoid the circulation of gossip and unfounded stories--worked, as fans enthusiastically supported Carol's determination to help Carrie. The teen-ager was rehabilitated in a nononsense drug-abuse program in Houston. Today Carrie is a regular on the TV series "Fame,' and she volunteers time to speak to schoolchildren about the dangers of drugs. Carol's second daughter, Jody Hamilton, is a junior at the University of the Pacific, and her youngest, Erin Kate Hamilton, attends an Eastern college.

Even though her offspringare successfully on their own, Carol has yet to slow down. Before starting Fresno, she taped the "Carol Burnett Special-- Carol, Carl, Whoopi & Robin' for ABC with Carl Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams. In the past four years she has done four shows for CBS and two for HBO.

Right now, though, she is starringin what CBS calls "a sweeping saga of greed, lust, and dried grapes,' where she is "locked in a life-and-death struggle for supremacy against Cane Enterprises.' As the raisin magnate Charlotte Kensington she'll be raisin' Cane, but as Carol Burnett she'll surely be splittin' seams. And after the dust has settled on the set, the last episode has been taped, and the first book has been promoted to best sellerdom, perhaps she can then finish moving into that new little California home, retire the 11 pieces of luggage, and put down roots one more time.

No kidding.

Photo: Once cast as the princess who could feel apea under the bedding in Once Upon A Mattress, now Carol's into raisins.

Photo: Carol's sister Chrissy (left) lives in Honolulu; her eldestdaughter Carrie is a regular on TV's "Fame,' and her daughters Jodie and Erin are away from home attending college.

Photo: Raising Cane, her scheming elder son, played by CharlesGrodin, is one of Charlotte Kensington's ongoing concerns.

Photo: Carol attributes her acting technique to on-the-job training with other actors and directors, such as friend Robert Altman (left).

Photo: Whether the role you're playing is serious or funny, the right costume helps you get into the mood for the part, Carol says--and for her, the more outlandish, the better.
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Garton, Leland
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:interview
Date:Nov 1, 1986
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