See "Mama's Family" Star Vicki Lawrence Now at 72
The comedy legend shares a look behind the scenes.
When the sitcom Mama's Family premiered in 1983, fans were already familiar with its cast. That's because the characters first appeared in sketch comedy bits on The Carol Burnett Show, and later in a TV movie called Eunice, with Carol Burnett as the title character and Vicki Lawrence as her "Mama"—despite being 16 years her junior. The original show was a hit, and Lawrence even won a Primetime Emmy Award in 1979 for her work on the series before she spun off the character for another show entirely. Since then, she's continued in comedy, notably appearing on Hannah Montana years later. Read on to see Lawrence now at 72, and to hear about her comedy career behind the scenes.
Vicki Lawrence broke into comedy by writing a fan letter.
Lawrence got her big break on The Carol Burnett Show in the '60s, after sending the star a fan letter in the mail. In it, she included a picture to show Burnett the striking resemblance between the two women. "I used to write fan letters to a lot of people when I was young—I wrote to everybody that was on television," she said in a 2009 interview with WNC. "And I mostly did it at my mom's urging because everybody from the day that I started high school said that I looked like Carol Burnett."
The photograph got Burnett's attention. "She was right at the point where she was putting together The Carol Burnett Show, and she thought that it would be a novelty to hire someone that looked like her as opposed to an actress," recalled Lawrence. This jump started her career as the public soon considered her Burnett's protege. When she later starred on Mama's Family, Burnett was there by her side as both a co-star and career mentor.
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She says Mama was a part of her.
Audiences loved Lawrence as Mama, and the actor quickly became a comedy legend. Nevertheless, she said it took a while to develop the character to its full potential. "I was trying to do an older version of Eunice [at first]. But I would say that Mama matured and got much deeper and more wonderful as a character as she matured … I think she got much better with age," Lawrence said in a 2011 interview with the Television Academy Foundation.
She added that forming the character became a deeply personal process, and that she and Burnett went toe to toe with the show's writers about certain key character elements. "They hated that [Burnett] wanted to do it Southern," Lawrence recalled. "They hated that I was Mama and she was Eunice—they pretty much hated everything we did with it."
To this day, she says it "takes not but a moment" to slip into character as Mama. "Any character you do well is a part of you," she told the Television Academy Foundation.
Lawrence's career hit a "brick wall" in her 40s.
When the series wrapped in 1990, it was difficult for Lawrence to find her career footing, she says. The comedian found this particularly disorienting because of the ease of her early career. "You talk to actors and they talk about how they struggle when they're young and they hit all these brick walls … I feel like I hit a brick wall, I had everything handed to me when I was a kid. I learned from the very best people in the whole world how fun show business is, should be, and how it should run, and I was completely unprepared to hit this brick wall in my 40s," she explained.
Lawrence recalled that she reluctantly agreed to host a TV talk show called Vicki! in 1992, but was at odds with the production company throughout its two seasons. "They wanted me to be me, but then they weren't happy when I was. They wanted to be in control," she explained. "If you look at any successful talk show, you see that it's all about the host, and you have to be able to laugh and take a ride with the host. You have to let them go where they want to go."
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Eventually she hit her stride as a talk show host.
Though behind the scenes Lawrence struggled with the production company's demands, she said shooting the talk show was reminiscent of her early career—a truly joyful experience. "I have to say that on camera, when we were doing the show, it was some of the most fun I've had since the early Carol Burnett days," she said in 2011.
Sometimes shooting three episodes a day, the talk show afforded her more than her fair share of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. "It was so much fun to talk to Bob and Dolores Hope, to spend the day with Doris Day, to cook with Wolfgang Puck, to sing with The Pointer Sisters, to sing with Dionne Warwick and Chaka Khan. It was just so much fun—nonstop fun—on camera," she said.
"I'm so fortunate to be able to make people laugh," Lawrence added.