Betty White Talks Better Call Saul and Her Love for Singing

Carol Burnett Celebrates 90th Birthday with New TV Series and Star-Studded Special

Legendary performer Carol Burnett turns 90 today, and she’s showing no signs of slowing down. This year, she will star in the Apple TV+ dark comedy series Palm Royale alongside Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern, and Allison Janney. Last summer, she had a dramatic turn in the final season of Better Call Saul, playing a character very different from her usual comedic roles.

Betty White Talks Better Call Saul and Her Love for Singing

To mark her 90th birthday, NBC will air a two-hour special tonight called Carol Burnett: 90 Years of Laughter + Love. The show, which was taped last month in front of a star-packed audience, features classic clips from her career as well as musical tributes from Katy Perry, Billy Porter, Bernadette Peters, and Kristin Chenoweth. The special will also stream on Peacock starting April 27.

One highlight of the special will be a segment about a comedic song Burnett performed back in 1957 called “I Made A Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles.” The song, about the then-Secretary of State, became a viral hit before the term "viral" was even coined. Burnett sang the song on the Jack Paar Tonight show and then received a call from Mr. Dulles’s television adviser, asking her to perform it again on the show. She sang it three times in one week and even got a response from Mr. Dulles himself when he was asked about the song on Meet the Press.

Despite turning 90, Burnett shows no signs of slowing down. With a new TV series and a star-studded special to celebrate her milestone birthday, it's clear that her career is still going strong.

"It had to be a huge turning point for your career, no?" 

Betty White Talks Better Call Saul and Her Love for Singing

As hot as that song was — and it was for about a week — people forget. It was a novelty song, it hit big, and then it kind of petered out. It took me a long time to get another big break. And that other big break — actually two in the same year, in 1959 — was when I got the lead in Once Upon a Mattress, which was an off-Broadway show, and I was also asked to be a regular performer on The Garry Moore Show. I was 25.

And now 65 years later, we’re celebrating your 90th birthday. Tell me about the special.

"Well, it’s not a birthday party and it’s not a roast. It’s a variety show. There’s live entertainment, and there’s a 19-piece orchestra, and the people who entertain — it’s just amazing. It was Kristin Chenoweth, Katy Perry, Darren Criss, Sutton Foster. Just a lineup of powerhouse performers. And then we show various clips, but not just featuring The Carol Burnett Show. There’s The Garry Moore Show, various movies I made, television appearances, duets I did with various people. They had a scene from Better Call Saul. It was just a lovely evening. I’m still kind of reeling from it."

"It’s a little surprising your celebration is on NBC and not CBS, where The Carol Burnett Show aired for 11 seasons. Do you know what happened?"

"I’m not sure if executive producer Mark Bracco offered them the idea first, but they passed. And it was kind of odd because I was with them for 11 years, and before that on The Garry Moore Show. But NBC jumped up. They said, “Two hours? Great.” And they’ve been terrific."

"For a lot of folks under 40, the first time they remember seeing you was VHS copies of the 1982 film version of Annie. The reviews at the time were mixed, and because of its big budget, it was seen as something of a flop …"

Betty White Talks Better Call Saul and Her Love for Singing

"Yeah, but I had a good time. My first scene, actually, was with Ann Reinking when she comes to the orphanage and wants to bring an orphan home for a week for Mr. Warbucks. I went up to John Huston, who was directing it, and I said, “Mr. Huston, how do you see me doing this scene?” And he kind of paused, and he looked at me and said, “Just cavort, dear. Just cavort.” So I cavorted! [Laughs.] I walked back to sit at the desk, and I just missed the chair and fell on the floor. He loved that. He said, “That’s good. We’ll keep that in.” Aileen Quinn, who played Annie in the film, is in the special, right? She’s on the show. Billy Porter, Bernadette Peters, and Jane Lynch do “Easy Street,” and then Aileen comes in and sings “Tomorrow.” And I’ll tell you, Joe, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was just so touching."

During the 1964-65 TV season, Carol Burnett starred in a variety show called "The Entertainers" alongside Bob Newhart. Despite the popularity of her CBS show and Garry Moore's show, "The Entertainers" was a challenging show for Burnett because she was also starring in a Broadway show called "Fade Out - Fade In" at the same time. Burnett had to miss a few shows due to an accident in a cab where she was rear-ended and her neck was injured, causing her to be in the hospital in traction. This led to her missing the Broadway show, and she was also out a lot from "The Entertainers." CBS ultimately canceled the show, and Burnett was grateful because it was a lot of work to do both shows.

When asked about what happened to the episodes of "The Entertainers," Burnett admitted that she had no idea. If there are any kinescopes or anything, she has no knowledge of them.

Burnett has spoken before about her relationship with Lucille Ball. She first met Ball when she came to the second night of "Once Upon a Mattress," where Burnett was performing. Before the curtain went up, Burnett saw Ball in the second row with her bright red hair, which made her more nervous about performing in front of Ball than she was with all the critics on opening night. After the show, Ball visited Burnett in her dressing room for close to a half-hour, and as she was leaving, she said, "Kid, if you ever need me for anything, don't hesitate. Call me."

Burnett did end up calling Ball about four or five years later when CBS offered her an hour-long special if she could get a major guest star. The producer, Bob Banner, suggested that Burnett call Ball, and even though Burnett didn't want to bother her, she got up the nerve to call. When Ball got on the phone, she said, "Hey kid, you're doing great. What's happening?" Burnett was nervous and stammering, but eventually, Ball interrupted her and asked, "When do you want me?" Ball ended up doing the special with Burnett, which was called "Carol + 2," and the other guest was Zero Mostel.

“I’m sure you have a million interesting Lucy stories. Can you tell me one?” This was a question posed to the legendary comedian Carol Burnett, in a recent interview. Burnett responded by sharing a story about her friend and fellow entertainer, Lucille Ball. According to Burnett, during a dinner outing with Lucy, the two discussed how Lucy's former husband Desi Arnaz ran everything before they got divorced. He was in charge of everything from the scripts to the camera work. All Lucy had to do was come in on Monday and be "silly, crazy Lucy." However, when she was doing the reading for the first "Here's Lucy" show, she realized that she had to be confrontational like Desi. She went back into the script reading and told them what they had to do to fix the script. She didn't hold back, and that's when they put the "s" on the end of her last name.

The conversation then shifted to Burnett's past work, including her appearance on the soap opera "All My Children." Burnett revealed that she didn't have to ask for a part, as the show's creator, Agnes Nixon, offered her a role after hearing her talk about the show during her own Q&A sessions. Burnett flew back to New York during her hiatus and had a storyline written for her. She was on the show for two weeks and got to know Susan Lucci.

The interviewer then brought up Burnett's work in the film "The Four Seasons" with Alan Alda. Burnett revealed that she and Alda had been friends for a while, and even worked together on a 1974 adaptation of a Broadway show. Burnett also shared a childhood memory of roller skating with the neighborhood kids in Hollywood, including Robert Alda, Alan's father. Alan had polio as a child and was unable to join in on the fun. Burnett marveled at how Alda had overcome his condition and even went on to kick higher than a Rockette.

In the interview, Burnett also expressed her admiration for soap-opera actors, noting how difficult it is to memorize lines and pull off a performance in such a short amount of time. Overall, the interview offered a glimpse into Burnett's past work and personal life, including her relationships with other notable entertainers.

Talking about stretching one's abilities, you played a significant role in the final season of Better Call Saul. It was quite surprising that your character was responsible for putting Saul Goodman in jail. Can you tell me how you landed the role?

I had known Vince Gilligan from his days writing for The X-Files. He had written an episode called "Monday Monday," which featured my daughter Carrie, who played the girl who had to repeat the same day over and over again. Vince told me that Carrie was his favorite guest star on the show, so that's what we talked about when we first met. Later on, I became a big fan of Breaking Bad, and during dinner with Vince and his wife Holly, I mentioned how much I loved Better Call Saul. Vince then said to me, "I may write something for you." I responded by saying, "I don't care if it's a sentence - I'll be there." And that's how they wrote the part for me. I was in New Mexico for two months and loved working with everyone. It was like being part of a family.

As I was preparing for this interview, I discovered something new about your career. In 1972, you released a pop album where you sang some original songs and covered tracks by the Carpenters and Connie Francis. Did you ever consider doing more singing outside of TV?

My first love was musical comedy. I originally wanted to be like Mary Martin and Ethel Merman - a Broadway baby who did musicals. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to star in Once Upon a Mattress. However, when I started working on The Garry Moore Show, I found that I enjoyed doing different things each week, as opposed to playing the same character eight times a week for a year. The show started to include more sketches and comedy than music, but I always sang. I sang on Garry's show, and I certainly did a lot of singing on my own show. Unfortunately, when our show went into syndication, they cut all the music out and only aired the sketches. Many people who grew up watching my show never saw me sing, so I was glad to have at least gotten to sing in Annie, even though "Little Girls" wasn't a beautiful song. It was fun. I also got to do "Putting It Together," which was a tribute to Stephen Sondheim's work. We were on Broadway for quite a while with that. 

I am fortunate to have made some new friends at my age, including Rhea Seehorn and her husband, whom I will be having dinner with next week. It's nice to have new friendships with Allison Janney, Kristen Wiig, and Laura Dern, too. I feel like I am the luckiest person around.

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