Image: Everett Collection
In her interview with the Archive of American Television, Carol Burnet said, "I never imagined that I would be on television. My goal was the Broadway stage and nothing else."
Burnett grew up with very modest means. Raised by her grandmother in San Antonio, Texas, the pair moved to Hollywood to be closer to Burnett's mother, who had moved there years before.
Burnett caught the acting bug attending UCLA. While taking a musical comedy class, her professor announced she and the other students would provide the entertainment for a black-tie party in San Diego. It was the end of the semester and the performances would determine their final grades.
Burnett told the Archive, "I did a scene from Annie Get Your Gun." She continued, "Afterwards, I was at the hors d'oeuvre table and I'm putting hors d'oeuvres in my purse to take home to my grandmother and my mother. And someone taps me on the shoulder and I thought 'I'm busted!'"
But, as Burnett would soon find out, it wasn't someone busting her for stealing appetizers.
It was a man and his wife who wanted to say how much they enjoyed her scene. He asked Burnett what she wanted out of life. Burnett replied she would love to go to New York but couldn't afford it. "I was working part-time at the Iris theater on Hollywood Boulevard in the box office making a hot 75 cents an hour," Burnett said.
The man promised he would give her the money if she came to his office in a week. Burnett was floored but she couldn't pass up this opportunity! She borrowed a car to get down to San Diego the following week and sure enough, he gave her a check for $1,000.
The man said it was a loan and that, if she was successful, she should pay the money back (without interest) in five years' time. He also insisted that she never tell anyone who he was.
"So, I left and went to New York. Quit school my sophomore year," Burnett recalled. "I'd never been any further east than Texas and I didn't know a soul in New York…I didn’t know enough to be scared."
Sure enough, after a few years in the Big Apple, she made her breakout debut in the Broadway show Once Upon a Mattress in 1959.
"I’m so thankful that I was so stupid! You know? That I could just get up and go and think everything was going to be okay," she admitted.
She paid the man back "five years to the day" and reconnected with him and his wife many years later after starting The Carol Burnett Show. There was a third stipulation he asked of her when he gave her the money: He said she should make sure to help others the way he was helping her.
Burnett created multiple scholarships at different universities and she also mentioned that she has helped people, sometimes anonymously, with their dreams the way that man helped her.