Carol Burnett is one of the most beloved stars in TV history. But if it weren’t for the generosity of good samaritans, she might never have become a household name.
“There’s something bigger than we are,” the actress, who stars in the Netflix series, A Little Help with Carol Burnett, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue, on stands Friday. “I don’t want to sound woo-woo, but there are so many wonderful coincidences in my life.”
That’s a bit of an understatement. The 85-year-old comedy legend’s life is filled with the kind of strokes of good fortune that only happen at the movies. Except if you happen to be Carol Burnett.
Her life began inauspiciously enough. Burnett’s parents, Creighton Burnett, an aspiring writer, and Joseph Burnett, a movie theater manager, moved west from San Antonio in the 1930s, drawn to the bright lights of Los Angeles. Instead, their fortunes floundered. The pair soon split up and both became alcoholics, and their daughter sometimes blamed herself.
“I thought they could [quit] if they wanted to,” says Burnett, who became a people-pleaser in her dysfunctional family. “You can’t fix it.”
Because their mother was unable to care for them, Burnett and her younger half-sister Chrissie were raised by her grandmother, Mabel White, in a studio apartment in a dingy rental building called the Hollywood Arms. Money was so short that White sometimes lifted silverware from local diners so the trio would have cutlery.
Although they were poor, they had one indulgence: White frequently took her charges to the great movie palaces along Hollywood Boulevard to see the films of stars such as Joan Crawford, Jimmy Stewart, and Fred Astaire (and swipe a roll of toilet paper or two home from the bathrooms).
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Burnett found both an outlet for her rich imagination, and an escape.
“I was raised going to the movies in the 30s and 40s when there was no cynicism,” she says. “I never saw the dark side. I think those movies may be what did it for me — an imprint on a young mind and a young girl growing up that everything’s possible. You can be happy.”
And then it all happened for her — just like in the movies.
After graduating from Hollywood High in 1951, Burnett was admitted to UCLA. But she was too poor to afford the university’s $50 a year tuition; the family could scrape together $30 a month in rent. Then one day, an envelope arrived in her apartment mailbox. In it was the money she needed to get her education.
“I still don’t know who it was,” says Burnett of the anonymous benefactor who allowed her to enroll. “But I got to go to UCLA.”
On campus, Burnett switched her major from journalism to theater and began performing in plays. Thrilled by the feeling of getting laughs in front of an audience, she set her sights on Broadway. Once again, her only obstacle was money.
Then, in her junior year, Burnett performed with other students at a party at home in San Diego. After the show, she was approached by a wealthy businessman and his wife.
The man asked about Burnett’s future plans, and when he found out about her New York dreams, offered to help her and her future first husband, actor Don Saroyan, go to New York.
He offered them both $1,000-interest free loans, on the condition that they be repaid in five years, and if they found success, they would help others achieve their dreams. And one more thing: They could never, ever reveal his name.
“I promised I wouldn’t,” says Burnett, who has kept the donor’s identity secret ever since. “His wife told me had also helped somebody start a restaurant and another person run a gas station. He liked the people he picked and felt that they had a chance and were sincere, so he sponsored them.”
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“Somebody had helped him get his start in this country,” she adds. “So he was paying it forward.”
Off she went to New York, but after checking into $9 room at the Algonquin Hotel, she quickly realized she would run through her meager largesse. She had no prospects, and was soon going to be right back where she started.
“I called my grandmother and everybody collect,” Burnett recalls. “They said, ‘You come home.’ And I said, ‘I just got here.’ They were all crying. I was crying.”
“I remember I hung my clothes up on the shower rack in the hotel room because that was what I always did at home because I didn’t have a closet,” Burnett says. “I didn’t use the closet in the hotel room. I was still crying, and I turned on the radio and it started raining outside. Then I heard that [the storm] was Hurricane Carol.”
And with that, Burnett knew her luck was on the rebound again. “All of a sudden, I felt great,” she said. “It was fine.”
- For more on Carol Burnett, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
After moving into a boarding house for aspiring actresses called the Rehearsal Club, Burnett organized a talent showcase that got her spotted by agents. Then came stints in nightclubs and eventually a job on a TV show hosted by comic Garry Moore, a role on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress —and then, her own namesake variety series.
With that run of luck, was there even time to lose hope?
“I remember early on when I was in New York and was up for a small part in a Broadway show,” Burnett says. “It was narrowed down between me and another girl. I really thought I had it, that I was a shoo-in. I got this. Well I didn’t. Then I thought—and I don’t where this came from so I’m guessing it’s from the movies — You know what, it’s not my turn. This is her turn. I knew my turn would someday come. And it did.”
Did it ever. Thanks to the kindness of strangers.