Carol Burnett, who turns 90 on Wednesday, demonstrated for decades that laughter really is good medicine, and that the scars of life are more bearable when treated with healthy doses of humor and humility.
“No one ever said life was fair,” Burnett once said. “Just eventful.”
Burnett’s very public “events” include roles on stage, countless appearances in movies and television, host of her own legendary show, “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran for eleven star-studded seasons between 1967 and 1978 and even receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which President Bush awarded her in 2005.
Privately, the award-winning actress overcame a broken home and poverty as a child, two divorces and the loss of a daughter to cancer. In 2020, she and her husband received guardianship of their teenage grandson.
How did she shoulder and survive all of the burdens?
“I couldn’t get the laughter out of my head,” she has said. “It wasn’t career. It wasn’t even a choice. It was a calling.”
But Burnett may never have enjoyed a seven-decade career if not for the kindness and generosity of a stranger.
At the time, Carol Burnett was a starving film student at UCLA. It was the end of a semester, and one of the school’s professors invited a group of the kids down to a party near San Diego. Carol joined an ensemble there to perform a scene from “Annie Get Your Gun.”
Later that evening, while sneaking food from the buffet table into her purse to bring back home for her grandmother, a gentleman in a tuxedo approached her. She was afraid she had been caught stealing food.
The man lauded her performance and asked what she planned to do with her life. She told him she’d loved to perform on stage in New York.
“Why don’t you?” he asked her.
She confided in him that she barely had enough money to get back to school, let alone move to New York City and chase her dream.
The stranger then made her an offer that would change her life.
The mystery man offered to lend her the money, but on three conditions. First, if possible, she was to repay the loan within five years. Second, she was to never reveal the benefactor’s name. And finally, she was to help someone in similar circumstances down the road. She gratefully agreed.
The “Rest of the Story” is well-known and often told. Thanks to the loan, Burnett made it to New York. She landed parts on stage and television, and then got a big break on the Garry Moore Show. It was from her work there that she eventually launched her own variety show – a program that CBS executives discouraged her from doing, suggesting that such a genre was a man’s world.
As for the man who made it all possible?
“He never told me his reasons for helping me in the manner he did,” she wrote. “But as the years have gone by, I’ve been able to unravel the mystery of this man, at least to my own satisfaction, and in the process, I’ve discovered a powerful spiritual principle to use in my own life.”
“I stumbled upon the key clue one day when I was glancing through a copy of the recently published Living Bible. I had turned to the sixth chapter of Matthew because I wanted to see how the Lord’s Prayer had been translated.
“Suddenly, some verses seemed to leap out of the page: ‘When you give a gift to a beggar, don’t shout about it as the hypocrites do…When you do a kindness to someone, do it secretly…And your Father Who knows all secrets will reward you’” (Matthew 6:2-4).
Carol, who now says Jesus’ command in Matthew are her favorite verses, concluded her benefactor was following Jesus’ teaching, and that the Lord was using the gentleman to encourage her in the pursuit of her life’s dream.
“I was convinced that the man was sincere,” she recalled. “And I believed, furthermore, that the good Lord was giving me, Carol Burnett, a strong and unmistakable push.”
Happy 90th birthday, Carol Burnett.
Photo from Shutterstock.