Carol Burnett talks about her career and her longtime friendship with designer Bob Mackie

By Drew Mackie
January 29, 2016 04:40 PM
Courtesy Bob Mackie

At this Saturday’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award won’t be just a movie star: She’s a performer who’s brought her presence to TV, to movies and to the stage. It’s Carol Burnett, who is perhaps most famous for starring on 11 seasons (and nearly 300 episodes) of The Carol Burnett Show.

Speaking to PEOPLE this week, Burnett said she was thrilled to receive the honor. “To borrow a word that my friend Julie Andrews taught me, I was gobsmacked,” Burnett said of her reaction to learning the news. “I have never used that word before, but it’s the perfect one for how I felt. I was just totally thrown.”

And because any actress appearing at a high-profile awards show needs to look her best, Burnett knew exactly whom to ask to design a dress for the occasion: Bob Mackie, the iconic Hollywood designer, her longtime friend and the man who designed every one of the costumes she and her fellow performers wore on The Carol Burnett Show. “He’s one of my dearest friends. And I told him, ‘If you’re busy, I totally understand,’ but I wasn’t going to ask anybody else first,” she said.

Burnett is the first to sing the praises of Mackie, who’s attending the show as well and sitting at Burnett’s table. By Burnett’s estimates, Mackie designed over 17,000 outfits for the show – from the famous “curtain rod” Scarlett O’Hara dress from the Gone with the Wind parody to every outfit seen on every supporting character in every other sketch.

But the SAG Awards dress, an emerald green evening suit, is far from the first piece of formal wear that Mackie has created for Burnett. In addition to the many costumes he designed for Burnett’s other characters, he also designed the evening gowns she’d wear in the opening to every episode, in which she’d welcome the audience.

“She’d always come out in something dressy. And for that moment, she’d be herself. In the rest of the show, she be in one crazy outfit after another, but that opening was a way for the audience to get to know her as herself,” Mackie recalled. “We thought of it as a friendly evening gown – something she could be relaxed in. Very often her evening clothes had pockets in them, so she’d have something to do with her hands, because in the beginning she was intimidated by wearing evening clothes and talking to the audience. But then she got used it. A lady could get used to that sort of thing.”

Burnett praised Mackie for being able to design clothes that could be elegant or comedic, and in fact actually using his clothes helped her develop some of the characters she’d play on the show. For example, it was a baggy-bottomed skirt of Mackie’s that helped Burnett devise Mrs. Wiggins, her ditzy secretary character.

“Bob actually has a great comedic mind,” she said. “Originally, Tim [Conway] write Mrs. Wiggins as a doddering old lady, and Bob pointed out that I’d played a bunch of old ladies and suggested I play her as this bimbo. So he put me in a tight black skirt and blond wig and push-up bra. But when I put the skirt on, it was tight in the knees and it dragged in the behind. And I said, ‘Bob, you’re going to have to take that in because I’m flat in my behind.’ But he said, ‘No, stick your behind into it.’ And that became her walk – that swaybacked walk with my butt sticking out, and that totally contributed to the character. He’d do that with so many of the sketches we were doing.”

Mackie said he’s thrilled on Burnett’s behalf that she’s getting recognized for a lifetime of ace performances. “Usually with these awards, it’s a John Wayne or a George Clooney who’s getting recognized. But Carol, she’s done everything. There are really few women to fall into the category she’s in, so I was very excited for her. I thought, ‘That’s lovely. Thank God somebody thought of her to do that.’ ”

The two both recall their first formal introduction: in 1967 at Burnett’s house. She had seen a Las Vegas show by Mitzi Gaynor for which Mackie had done the costumes, and so Burnett asked him to come to her house to meet her to talk about designing costumes for her show, which was soon to begin production. “And so the doorbell rang, and I opened the door, and I thought it was a mistake because he looked like he was 12 years old,” Burnett recalled with a laugh. “He had this beautiful baby face. And he came in and was just adorable, and we hit it off and we hired him right on the spot.”

Mackie recalled the meeting as well: “I rang the doorbell and there she was, just the way you wanted her to be – very lovely and completely herself. That s just the way she is.”

Burnett explained that she soon stopped requiring Mackie to submit sketches for approval. Within a few weeks of production of the show, she trusted his instincts implicitly. “I just knew I would love everything,” she said. “And when we’d have dancers as guests – you know, like Chita Rivera or Juliet Prowse or Gwen Verdon – they loved what he did too, because he’d put them in something that made them look terrific but that they could also move in.”

Asked if he can name off outfits he’d designed for Burnett that he counts as favorites, Mackie is modest, saying only “Anytime somebody walks out and the audience goes crazy and laughs and applauds, that is pretty good.” But he acknowledges that the Gone With the Wind dress remains a fan favorite. “It was something I just threw together, really, at the last minute because I couldn t figure out for the life of me what to do to get that laugh,” he said. “Now, when people are watching the actual Gone With the Wind and Scarlett walks out in the real dress, people laugh, and they say they re laughing because of Carol Burnett. And that s really the craziest thing, but it’s true: Now a lot of people have seen the Carol Burnett sketch before they ve seen actual movie.”

(The dress is currently on display in the Smithsonian.)

Burnett and Mackie still speak of each other so fondly, after a nearly 50-year friendship.

“I don’t know anybody else who could have done what he did,” Burnett said of their collaboration on her show. “It’s been a nearly lifelong friendship and a professional relationship that I really treasure.”

Mackie is no less keen on Burnett, and he spoke about the qualities that made her the type of actor who’d be recognized for a lifetime performing. “The thing about Carol that I learned doing costumes for her is that you can put her in anything – any wig, any costume, even something with body padding – and you always knew it was her in there. That’s the sign of a true star. The personality is just so strong. She’s wildly talented and funny, but she’s also very real – onstage and offstage, she’s herself.”