On the second night of her off-Broadway run as Princess Winnifred in Once upon a time there was a mattress, carol burnet looked through the curtain at the audience. In the second row sat a familiar-looking woman with fiery red hair. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, this is Lucille Ballrecalls Carol. “‘I don’t know if I can make it through tonight.'”
After the show, Lucille visited Carol’s dressing room to say hello. “She was so supportive of me,” recalls Carol, who was only 25 at the time. “She called me ‘Kid.’ She said, “Baby, if you ever want anything or need me, call me,” which was so sweet.”
This backstage encounter in 1959 became the genesis of a warm friendship between Carol and Lucille that lasted the next 30 years. The women appeared together on television specials, were guests on each other’s shows, and shared private time out of the spotlight. Lucille even hosted Carol’s baby shower when she was pregnant with her second daughter, Jody. “It was a black tie baby shower. With men in attendance,” Carol says. “Her husband was comedian Gary Morton then, and he opened all the baby gifts and did routines on everything. It was just hysterical.
Despite the 22 years that separate them, Lucille and Carol understand each other. Both were raised largely by strong women – Carol by her grandmother and Lucille by her widowed mother. Neither had any money growing up. “On my mother’s side, they had nothing,” recalls Lucie Arnaz of his mother. Carol, meanwhile, spent her early years in an apartment so small that she used the bathroom shower curtain rod to hang her clothes. “It was not a pleasant childhood”, admits Carol, who like Lucille, used to escape to the cinema.
Lucille spent two decades as a B-movie starlet before bursting onto i love lucy in 1951. Yet despite all the accolades bestowed upon her for the show, she always insisted that she was not naturally funny. “She was like, ‘I’m an actress who specializes in comedy. I can make it funny, but I need something to work with,'” says Thomas Watsonstaff member in 1986 Life with Lucy.
Watching Carol on stage, Lucille immediately recognized the young woman’s natural talent for acting – and greatly admired her. “She had something you couldn’t get away from, you just knew that girl had it,” Lucille said. “She does crazy things, but you believe it.”
Carol, meanwhile, was a longtime fan of the redhead star. “I’ve always looked up to her,” she says, noting what a wonderful actress Lucille was. “When I first saw her on screen, I remember that I didn’t like her at all. I was 9 years old and the movie was called The main street, and Lucy played this mean, heartless showgirl. I have seen the film since. I think it’s my favorite Lucy movie, which is weird to me because she wasn’t funny, but I think the movie shows that Lucy’s talent as an actress is based on the fact that she is a wonderful actress. She could do anything. »
Carol had never planned on accepting Lucille on her offer of career assistance. But in 1966, she called her. “I was doing really well, and CBS offered me a one-hour special if I could get a major guest star,” Carol recalled. “She phoned right away and said, ‘Hey Kid, you’re fine, what’s going on?’ I was so nervous. I was whining all over the place. I said, ‘Lucy, I know you’re busy. I’m going to do a special…’ and she wouldn’t even let me finish. She said, ‘When I do you want?’ “
The special, Carol + 2, which aired in 1966, would be the first time they worked together but not the last. Carol appeared on Lucy’s show and Meet Lucywhile Lucille guest starred three times on The Carol Burnett Show.
At Desilu Studios in the 1960s, Lucille had been the first woman to head a major Hollywood production company. She shared what she had learned about being the boss with her young protege. “Lucy told me when she got divorced, she had to do everything Desi [Arnaz] did, and the first table read on Lucy’s show smelly,” says Carol. “She was like, ‘Kid, that’s where they put the S at the end of my last name.'”
When Carol was on Lucille’s TV series, she admired the respect Lucille inspired behind the scenes. “She must have gotten tough because nobody was listening to ‘Crazy Little Lucy’,” says Carol, who says she considered her friend to be outspoken but fair. “She never censored herself, [but she] never harassed anyone. That was how she was, and they would lay down their lives for her.
Carol says she could never be as tough as Lucille on The Carol Burnett Show but found her own way to get what she wanted. “I couldn’t do like Lucy,” Carol said. “I would say, ‘I’m not doing this right, can you help me here? “”
Lucille liked to send Carol flowers for her birthday. “Every year she would say, ‘Happy Birthday, Kid,’” recalls Carol, who was heartbroken when she learned of Lucille’s death from a cardiac rupture on April 26, 1989. “She died on my birthday. I remember waking up and seeing it on the morning shows, and it was out of the blue. She’d been sick, but they thought she was coming home [from the hospital] and she died… That afternoon, the doorbell rang. There were flowers and a card that said, ‘Happy birthday, kid.’ »
In a business where performers often see each other as rivals rather than friends, Lucille and Carol forged a unique relationship that was as beautiful and timeless as their work. “I always looked up to her. I thought of her as my big sister,” Carol explains. “She was really a special, special friend.”
— By Louise A. Barile
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