A BELOVED COMEDIENNE RETURNS

Carol Burnett brought out a handwritten letter from her father to her mother and pointed to a phrase, capitalized and underlined, that said pridefully, and with brave futility, "I'm off the hooch." She held the letter with both hands, and after showing it whisked it away.

She was momentarily nervous.

A paradox about Carol Burnett is that she became a public performer in order to remain privately hidden. Now that has changed. In the last three years she has lived a semi-reclusive existence, "living out of suitcases," as she put it. It has been a time during which she has examined her childhood and her family for the first time, the result of which is her memoir, "One More Time," now in bookstores.

The book has represented her first, or at least greatest, effort at self-discovery, where, at 53, she can say, "I'm alone without being lonely."

Although she had just completed a three-month shoot of the miniseries "Fresno" (a spoof on "Dynasty" and "Dallas" that airs on CBS in November) and claimed near-exhaustion ("I've told everyone that after November I'm not doing anything until after the holidays"), she seemed relaxed and outgoing at her new home. Burnett's house, overlooking a canyon and, at some distance, the Pacific Ocean, has been completely refurbished to evoke what she calls "the Mrs. Miniver look, English countryside." It's a relatively new home for her, meticulously appointed, and still as neat as a movie interior awaiting an action.

Burnett's relative absence from the public eye does not denote complete withdrawal. In addition to "Fresno," her TV comedy special with Whoopi Goldberg, Carl Reiner and Robin Williams, called "Carol, Carl, Whoopi and Robin" will air on ABC in December, and on Sunday she hosts a one-hour salute to Walt Disney called "Great Moments in Disney Animation" on ABC-TV.

Outside of Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore, there is probably no other comedienne in television who has been more popular than Carol Burnett, and certainly there has been none more beloved. She has been a good movie actress, a better stage actress, and her lightness and changeability and quick focus have placed her in the perfect weight division for TV. She has always known how to put on a show, a true entertainment that was never smug or self-congratulatory. And when she stepped outside the curtain for a brief salutation or farewell, she gave us a neighborly feeling. We didn't know her, but we knew the job she did. She was part of the community, whatever that community was.

Burnett has had relatively few publicized scrapes for such prominence. She became a dutiful supporter of clinical drug treatment when her oldest daughter, Carrie, fell victim to drug abuse. (Carrie now has a role on the TV series "Fame.") Burnett successfully brought a $10-million suit against the National Enquirer over an article that claimed she had been drunk and disorderly in a Washington restaurant. Her high-profile marriage to producer Joe Hamilton came to a discreet end in 1983. It was around that time that she withdrew and shortly after began thinking about a memoir of her family.

"When you're a child, you're at the center of your own stage," she said. "You don't know what goes on in other people's lives. I really didn't know how terrific my dad was until I sat down to write about him. I wanted this book to be for my girls, because they could never know what it was like for me growing up otherwise. I wish my parents could've done that for me. The book became my home for two years. I lived out of a suitcase. Somebody once said, 'A lot of creativity comes out of not being too comfortable.' "

Burnett's impoverished Hollywood childhood (her family is from San Antonio, where she was born) was spent largely in the care of her eccentric but tenacious and manipulative grandmother. That relationship, along with that of her mother and father, draws most of "One More Time's" attention--her career details are marginal in comparison. One of the book's lingering images is of her parents becoming lost to her, and themselves.

"I felt most keenly for my mother," Burnett said. "I didn't realize it until I started writing. Before this book, I felt myself dreaming about her. I'd say, 'They told me you were dead.' "

Some, but not all, of that sense memory came into view when she created the crabby Eunice--modeled after her mother--for her variety show. ("Carol Burnett and Friends" has lived on in syndication for the last 10 years.)

"There's a premise about Eunice I discovered right away," she said. It's, 'If only I coulda. . . . ' There's a lot of Mama in Eunice. I immediately picked up a Texas accent for her. The writers' jaws dropped when they heard it--they had placed her in the North. But Nanny was nothing like the character Vicki Lawrence played.

"Nanny didn't yell. She undercut, and drove Mama wild. She had a way of getting to the underbelly with a subtle knife. When Mama was living in Hollywood, and didn't want us to come out from San Antonio, Nanny just said, 'You don't want Carol? . . . ' "

Of her father, Burnett said, "He really tried. Attitudes have changed about alcohol. Now it's recognized as a disease. You can go to a clinic. If you drank then, it was your fault.

"If Mama and Nanny and Daddy had been alive today, things would've been different. I don't think Mama would've been embarrassed and ashamed over Chrissie (Burnett's illegitimate half-sister), and I don't think Nanny would say, 'You have to get a man to make it.' In those days, men had all the power, the money. When her father went broke, they lost everything. I asked her about all her marriages, 'Didn't you love any of 'em?' She said, 'No. What for?' "

There was a touch of sotto voce in Burnett's impersonation of her grandmother, which contrasted with her even demeanor. Burnett is a personable, plain-speaking woman who doesn't, as a rule, indulge in "takes" or ironic asides. She's like a bright unaffected hostess gifted at keeping a conversation percolating along. Her gaze is direct; her smile is easy and generous.

"It wasn't until I got to UCLA that I began to gain any sense of myself," she said. "I had been searching for something to be good at besides being Goody Two-Shoes. I started to become popular as a performer--I had never been No. 1 in anyone's eyes except Nanny's--but at the time I didn't realize I sought validation through other people. I was very naive. When later I went to New York and met Eddie Foy and asked for career advice, I told him I needed a feature role--I knew I wasn't good enough for the chorus. Nobody should say a thing like that. But how was I to know?"

Burnett made it to New York through the generosity of a La Jolla businessman who gave her and her then-husband Don Saroyan $1,000 apiece with the proviso that they pay it back in five years and help out other needy people when they could--which Burnett has done with scholarship programs at UCLA and the University of Hawaii.

She knew lean times for a while, but they didn't last long. She whipped up a successful variety show at the Rehearsal Club, a theatrical hotel for women. She made a splash with a nightclub number called "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," and shortly after was a hit as a replacement on TV's "The Garry Moore Show," where her career took off.

"There's always been something to push me up and out," she said. "In a scene I recall for the book--a tiny scene that doesn't mean anything to anybody--I remember Mama, Nanny, Chrissie and me together. Nanny and Mama were at it. I was doing watercolors. I found me, at 52, touching the shoulder of Carol, at 14, saying, 'It's all right,' and I wondered if at 14 I really felt that touch in some kind of reversal of time. I know it sounds like 'Twilight Zone,' but I wonder, 'Did the me from the future touch me then? Is there something in me that knows in advance how things are going to turn out?' I never doubted I could survive. I still don't."

She rose to show off her new word processor, which she bought the same day she bought her house. "It wasn't as hard to learn to use it as I thought," she said. "I'm not a rocket scientist but the IQ fairy did pay me a visit."

She showed her bedroom, where she writes, and when she picked up the dolls she's had since childhood, her manner quickened in a fresh, girlish eagerness.

"You have to understand in life that things change," she said a moment later. "My feeling about show business, or anything, is to try not to go back. Love it for what it is and accept it for what it was. I hope they won't be mad at me for writing this book--well, Nanny will be mad because I told her age." Her voice broke in a ripple of grief. "It's been a great lesson for me."

Asked if any of her conviction had been gained through psychotherapy, she replied, "No. I talk a good game. Most performers do. There's a difference between what's in my head and what's in my heart."

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