Scott D. Pierce: Believe it or not, Carol Burnett didn’t want to be on TV

She wanted to be a Broadway star — until she started appearing on TV.

Pasadena, California • In this age of hyperbole, far too many people are declared to be TV icons. TV legends. To the point that the terms become almost meaningless.

But there are a few people that are unquestionably both. Including, of course, Carol Burnett, who’s not only a legend dating back to the late 1950s, but is still working 6½ decades later.

She’s 90, by the way. She’ll be 91 in April.

Burnett is one of the stars of the forthcoming Apple TV+ series “Palm Royale,” and she said she jumped at the opportunity to work with a cast that included Kristen Wiig, Lara Dern, Bruce Dern, Ricky Martin and Josh Lucas.

“All I had to do was hear who was going to be in it. … I just wanted to work with these people,” Burnett said.

Based on Juliet McDaniel’s novel “Mr. and Mrs. American Pie,” “Palm Royale” is a 10-part comedy series set in 1969 about a newcomer to Palm Beach (Wiig) who’s determined to get into the area’s most exclusive private club. It starts streaming on March 20.

“Of course, in the first few episodes, I’m in a coma, and I still got paid,” Burnett said. “So, I mean, it was a slam dunk.”

She wasn’t kidding. Her character really is in a coma when “Palm Royale” gets rolling. And, no spoilers here, but despite the coma, she still has some hilarious scenes. “Even though she was in a coma, she was giving me so much as an actor,” Martin said. “It was incredible.”

“And to work with Ricky in some of those scenes was just heaven,” Burnett said.

(Photo courtesy CBS) Carol Burnett takes questions from the audience in an early episode of “The Carol Burnett Show.”

I’ve interviewed Burnett a whole bunch of times over the past three decades, and she’s always been accommodating, funny and charming. That hasn’t changed. But she did tell members of the Television Critics Association something that surprised me: When she started out, she had no intention of performing on television.

Burnett moved to New York in 1954 to pursue parts on and off Broadway. But jobs were hard to come by, and she had to pay her rent — $18 a week for room and board — and in 1955, she auditioned for Leonard Bernstein for a small part in the TV series “Omnibus.”

“I sang for Lenny, and he said, ‘Take it up a key,’” Burnett said. “Sang again, up a key, because he wanted me to belt.”

Bernstein hired her for a segment honoring another showbiz legend, Ethel Merman, singing “‘Give Him the Ooh-La-La,” from “Du Barry was a Lady,” in which Merman starred on Broadway. Outfitted in “a powdered wig and the whole nine yards,” it was Burnett’s “first experience, and I was absolutely thrilled.”

In 1959, she landed the lead role in the Broadway production of “Once Upon a Mattress” — fulfilling her dream to be a Broadway star — and, at the same, she signed on to “The Garry Moore Show,” a weekly variety show that aired on CBS. “I was young — 25, 26 years old — so I could work that hard,” she said with a smile.

FILE - In this March 19, 1978 file photo, Carol Burnett, right, laughs with Tim Conway during taping of her final show, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/ George Brich, File)

And to her surprise, Burnett discovered that TV was where she wanted to be.

“At first I wanted to only be on Broadway in musicals, like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin,” Burnett said. “And then I got on Garry’s show, and we started doing sketches — comedy. One of the writers on Garry’s show was Neil Simon, so we had some pretty good sketches to do. And I realized that I would rather do different things every week than to be doing the same thing eight times a week on Broadway.”

She won an Emmy her third season on “The Garry Moore Show,” and she resisted CBS’ push for her to star in a sitcom — preferring instead to do her own variety show, which her contract with the network allowed her to insist on.

“I wanted music. I wanted dancers. I wanted guest stars. I wanted a rep company. And so we wound up doing an original musical comedy revue every week,” Burnett said. “That was my love, and I feel very fortunate that we came along at that time. You couldn’t do what we did today, because we had a 28-piece orchestra, we had 65 to 70 costumes a week. …. No network would let us do that now with that kind of money. … I feel very fortunate that our show happened at the time it did.”

Almost 46 years since “The Carol Burnett Show” ended its run on CBS, Burnett is still excited to go to work. And she had only good things to say about her experience on “Palm Royale.”

“It was just a joy to go to work,” Burnett said. “And at my age, it’s a joy to be anywhere. But this was really something for me, and I loved it. And I hope there’s a second season, because I don’t want to be out of work.”

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