Guideposts Classics: Carol Burnett on Secret Kindness

In this story from October 1977, the beloved comedienne shares the story of a mysterious stranger who helped kickstart her career.

By Carol Burnett

As appeared in

My career–TV, stage, movies, all of it–was founded on a strange event that was to be a deep mystery to me for years. Only after my life had changed drastically did I begin to solve the puzzle I was confronted with one long-ago June evening in California.

In those days I was one of a group of stage-struck drama-school students at UCLA, living on hopes and dreams and not much else.

As school ended, one of our professors was leaving for a vacation in Europe. He had a house near San Diego, and a bon voyage party was planned. It was suggested that some of us drama students might drive down and entertain his supper guests with scenes from musical comedies.

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Nine of us agreed to go. One of the boys and I had rehearsed a scene from Annie Get Your Gun, I remember, and that was our part of the program. Everything went well. The guests seemed to enjoy our singing, and we enjoyed it, too.

After our performance, supper was announced. I was standing at the buffet when a man I had never seen before spoke to me pleasantly. He said he had admired our performance. Then he asked me what I intended to do with my life.

I told him that I hoped to go to New York some day and make a career for myself on the stage. When he asked what was stopping me, I told him truthfully that I barely had enough money to get back to Los Angeles, let alone New York.

I might have added, but didn't, that at times my grandmother, my mother, my sister and I had been on welfare. The man smiled and said that he would be happy to lend me the money to go to New York. A thousand dollars, he added, should be enough to get me started.

Well, in those days I was pretty innocent, but not that innocent. So I refused his offer politely. He went away, but in a few moments he was back with a pleasant-faced lady whom he introduced as his wife. Then he made his offer all over again.

He was quite serious, he said. There were only three conditions. First, if I did meet with success, I was to repay the loan without interest in five years. Next, I was never to reveal his identity to anyone.

Finally, if I accepted his offer, I was eventually to pass the kindness along, to help some other person in similar circumstances when I was able to do so.

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He told me to think it over and telephone him when I got back to Los Angeles. He added that he was prepared to make a similar offer to my partner in the scene from Annie Get Your Gun, and he gave me his telephone number.

The next day, half convinced I had dreamed the whole thing, I called the number. I was told that if I had decided to accept the conditions, I could drive down on Monday morning and pick up my check.

Still unbelieving, I told my mother and grandmother. Their reaction, not surprisingly, was to urge me strongly not to have anything to do with my mysterious benefactor.

But somehow I was convinced that the man was sincere, and I believed, furthermore, that the good Lord was giving me, Carol Burnett, a strong and unmistakable push. I was supposed to accept the offer. I was being guided. And if I didn't go, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

At sun-up on Monday morning my partner and I were on the road. We drove for three hours. At nine o'clock, we were at the man's office. We had to wait perhaps half an hour–and believe me, that was the longest half hour of my life! But finally we were ushered in.

Our friend was crisp, serious, business-like. He reminded us of the conditions, especially the one about not revealing his identity. Then he had his secretary bring in the checks. I watched as he signed them. I had never seen so many beautiful zeros in my life.

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