By Lois Armstrong
March 22, 1982 12:00 PM

The eight-seater Cessna flying from Honolulu to the island of Maui was making an interim stop on the largely uninhabited island of Molokai, known for its leper colony. Just as the pilot dipped his wing for the final approach to the narrow, pockmarked landing strip, one passenger, the colony’s mayor, leaned forward and tapped the shoulder of the woman sitting in front of him. “Excuse me,” he said, “but aren’t you Carol Burnett?” Yes, she was. “Come and visit us sometime,” he pleaded. “You’re one of our favorite people.”

Can there be more convincing proof that few entertainers are as widely beloved as Carol Burnett? Unflinchingly in the public eye for some 25 years, she has remained above reproach, both professionally and personally. Her homey, gawky comedy style is touched by a transparent humanity. Lately her dramatic roles, starting with 1979’s Emmy-winning Friendly Fire, have revealed unexpected depths. When she spoke openly of her eldest daughter’s drug problems, the nation grieved. When she won her landmark $1.6 million libel suit (later reduced to $800,000 and still on appeal) against the National Enquirer last spring, the public reacted to the decision with vociferous approval.

About the same time, she had her first box office smash in Alan Alda’s movie The Four Seasons, and six months ago she finished work on the big-budget musical Annie, due out this summer. There is more good news. Her husband, producer Joe Hamilton, 53, who suffered a mild heart attack shortly after Christmas, has recovered, thanks to the more measured life they have made for themselves in Hawaii. At 48, it seems, Carol has left her problems behind her on the mainland. And in this week’s touching TV movie Eunice, she comes to terms with her childhood traumas.

“At times I felt I was portraying my mother,” says Burnett of the show. “It was like psychodrama. It was sure a lot better than going to a psychiatrist.” Carol’s interpretation of Eunice, a tragicomic elaboration of a character from her old variety series, was partly based on her mother, Louise Creighton, a would-be journalist who died of alcoholism at 46. (Her father, whom she rarely saw, also was an alcoholic who died at 46.) “My mother was a beautiful woman whose problems were alcohol and a frustrating life,” says Burnett. “She wrote, and sold some articles to Collier’s, but kept missing the boat.” Burnett and her sister, Chrissy, 11 years younger, wound up being raised mostly by their grandmother, who lived across the hall in the same bleak Hollywood apartment building. “Every day I would go back and forth between apartments when my mother was too far gone,” recalls Burnett, who also remembers bitter arguments between her mother and grandma. “They had to lash out—they didn’t listen to each other. So many families don’t. But they needed that relationship. That’s what kept them alive.”

At 21, Burnett dropped out of UCLA, where she was studying theater, moved to New York, and married a young actor. (She later brought sister Chrissy, then 12, to live with her.) That first marriage did not last long enough to purge Carol’s painful family memories. She was devastated when her mother died four years after she left for New York. “I went crazy,” Carol recalls. “We had never been as close as I’d wanted to be. We’d never had a heart-to-heart mother-and-daughter talk.”

The loss affected her own family, says Burnett. She developed a friendship with Hamilton in 1958, when she stopped by the Garry Moore Show one rainy afternoon, looking, Joe recalls, like “a drowned rat.” “I’m a rain witch,” says Carol, who believes all her best projects start in the rain. They married in 1963. While Carrie, now 18, Jody, 15, and Erin, 13, were growing up, Carol was “the Loretta Young and Irene Dunne movie version of the perfect mother. I would never let my kids see me cry or get mad or even say a naughty word.” Friends say the trait went further. “People could walk all over Carol and get away with it. Hopefully, she’s getting better about speaking out,” says Vicki Lawrence, who is reunited with fellow Carol Burnett Show alumni Betty White, Ken Berry and Harvey Korman in Eunice. Continues Carol, “I think the kids thought there was some kind of robot living with them the first nine or 10 years. I’d seen so many fights growing up, I went 180 degrees the other way. It was the longest time before I would let them see that Mama might have a problem, that I was human. That was dumb of me.”

The last traces of artificial propriety were wiped away in 1977 when Carol discovered that daughter Carrie, then 13, was involved with drugs. Burnett cajoled and threatened, listened in on phone conversations, and at one point made visiting girlfriends leave their purses at the door. “I was mother tigress,” she said at the time. “I could think of nothing else, and it was driving a wedge into my marriage.” Carrie eventually enrolled in a Texas rehabilitation program, cleaned up, then reportedly suffered a brief relapse. She now works part-time as a script reader in L.A. and is looking forward to college in the fall. “We told her we would pay for it if she brings us A’s—which she is very capable of doing if she wants to do it,” says Burnett. She adds that she’s finally learned to “let Carrie go. What are you gonna do? Put all your eggs in somebody else’s basket, so that when they’re up, you’re up, and when they’re down, you’re down? You can’t do that. I’ve been a teenager and a mother,” she adds, “and being the mother of a teenager is a lot harder.”

Carol denies that drugs (“They’re everywhere”) had anything to do with the family’s decision to move from Beverly Hills to a cliff-top condominium in Maui about a year ago. During annual visits over the years, says Carol, she was simply seduced by the low-keyed life: “One day I realized that leaving Hawaii for L.A. felt more like leaving home than going home.”

The wisdom of their decision was dramatized by Joe’s heart attack, which occurred at the L.A. wedding of his son John, one of eight children from his first marriage. “It was the best kind of heart attack,” says Hamilton of the mild coronary, which he took as a dead-serious warning to slow down. “It certainly makes you change your priorities.” In his case that meant switching from too much work to more golf. “Joe thinks he’s gone to heaven,” says Burnett of the green carpet that tumbles across the front of their seaside property. “Golf is his meditation.”

Carrie visits, and Jody and Erin attend private school on the big island of Hawaii and make the 30-minute flight home on weekends, often with a classmate or two in tow. “The girls thought we were uprooting them, but sometimes it’s good to have something shake them up, to show them they can adjust,” says Carol, who manages to keep home life normal. “They have braces on their teeth, share a room and have no phone. But they don’t have to buy shoes two sizes too big to grow into. I wish Joe and I had been my parents.” Adds Burnett, “It takes as much for a rich kid to make something of herself as a poor kid. I know my girls have a sense of honor. I just hope they will be kind to people.”

In some ways, the family has hardly left Hollywood, or, it seems, The Carol Burnett Show. Their Maui home is three units of a four-apartment condo—the fourth belongs to old pal Tim Conway. The Hamiltons’ across-the-street neighbors are Vicki Lawrence, her husband, Al Schultz, and their two children. Carol and Joe are also building a second retreat at the island’s remote southern tip on five and a half acres sold them by friend Jim Nabors. Burt Reynolds and Richard Pryor own property nearby. Out of the blue, Carol invited RFK’s son Michael Kennedy and his new bride, Vicki Gifford, to dinner when they were honeymooning on Maui last spring. “I wouldn’t have the nerve to call them in New York or Los Angeles,” she says, “but this place opens you up to meeting people.”

She and Joe hope to work on the mainland about five months a year, so they’ve kept their Beverly Hills home. Annie, a $35 million project, is Carol’s biggest film role yet, and her casting as the comically nasty orphanage manager, Miss Hannigan, seems inspired. Meanwhile she just completed a TV movie, Beatrice, based on the true story of an alcoholic who started an L.A. rehabilitation center. Spookily, the woman, Beatrice Jorgenson, and Carol’s mother were born on the same day. Says Carol, “I met her and thought: ‘Here’s my mama, had my mama been saved.’ ”

Carol admits that things seem to be going suspiciously well. “Yeah, it does sound almost too good to be true,” she says. “Maybe something will happen—an earthquake?” More seriously, she adds, “To get up, go to work, and be happy with what you’re doing is being successful. I try to be untouched by triumph and untroubled by failure—you try to keep a center in yourself and not go crazy.” Maui helps. “You inhale on the mainland and you exhale here,” says Burnett. “Hawaii is one big lovely sigh.”