Like her great friend and mentor, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett was a loud-mouthed redhead who parlayed a gift for comedy into a groundbreaking television career that made her one of the most powerful women in show business.
"The Carol Burnett Show," her crowning achievement, ran for 11 years beginning in 1967, capturing 23 Emmy Awards with its smart mix of humorous skits and song-and-dance routines. Such was Burnett's stature that she was given virtually complete creative control of the hourlong program, and she used the power to revamp and expand the concept of the television variety show. Her shrewd guidance—and the work of cast members that included Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway—made "The Carol Burnett Show" a huge hit at a time when many TV executives had thought the variety show was dead.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1933, to parents who were alcoholics, Burnett had such a lonely childhood that she found solace with an imaginary twin sister. She also began to write and, after moving to Los Angeles, took theater arts classes at UCLA. Recalling the thrill she felt at making an audience laugh, she said, "All of a sudden, after so much coldness and emptiness in my life, I knew the sensation of all that warmth. . . . Everything changed for me."
Burnett made her Broadway debut in the 1959 musical "Once Upon a Mattress" and soon became a television regular. Her three marriages included one to TV producer Joe Hamilton, who died of cancer long after their divorce.