Another Heartbreak

updated 01/24/2002 AT 1:00 AM ET

originally published 01/24/2002 AT 1:00 PM ET

Whatever the project, Carrie Louise Hamilton did it her way. As she lay dying from cancer-related pneumonia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on Jan. 20, the music of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, two of her favorite artists, filled the room. Directing her own death as if it were one of her short films, she instructed that her ashes be divided between rural Colorado, where she had once bemused fellow townsfolk with her pink boas and pink-tinted hair, and Arkansas, the destination of a recent solo trek in search of family roots. In the end, Hamilton, a prototype child of Hollywood who had taken a wrong turn before finding the right direction, was surrounded by those who meant most to her: her two sisters, five of her six living half siblings and, of course, the woman whom she had both loved and battled most ferociously – her mother, Carol Burnett.

Later that Sunday, as family and friends gathered at the home of Hamilton’s sister Jody to share stories, photographs and tears, there was a bittersweet edge to their grief: Here was a woman who, as a teenager, had famously sunk into a pit of drug addiction that nearly shredded her family, then successfully rebuilt her life and relationships – only to die at 38. “Carrie certainly straightened herself out,” says Burnett’s pal and comedic sidekick Tim Conway, 68, who attended the impromptu wake. “More important, she also brought about a reunion with Carol.” Burnett, 68, greeted Carrie’s friends but stayed only 20 minutes before driving to her Santa Barbara home to mourn in private with her husband of two months, musician Brian Miller, 45. “Carol is a very strong lady,” says Conway. “She has had a life in which it was necessary to be strong, and she has developed a pretty strong outlook.”

Hamilton’s three-year adolescent descent into drugs and alcohol tested that strength. The episode rent Burnett’s heart, contributed to the demise of her marriage and literally reduced the comedian to a stuttering mess. After Hamilton’s recovery, Burnett chose to take their story public as a cautionary tale of Hollywood privilege gone horribly awry. “I was always Carol Burnett’s daughter,” Hamilton, at 15, explained to PEOPLE in 1979. “When I got high, I wasn’t anymore. I wanted my own image.” In the decades that followed, mother and daughter grew close, ever more so in recent years as they collaborated on Hollywood Arms, a play about Burnett’s early life. “This was Carrie’s idea,” says John Hamilton, one of eight children that Joe Hamilton brought from his broken first marriage when he wed Burnett in 1963. “She started it, and they wrote it together.” Their work on the play, which is scheduled to open in April at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, continued even after doctors diagnosed Hamilton, who had smoked since her early teens, with lung cancer in August. Three months later doctors found cancer had spread to her brain. “Carol had always been very supportive of Carrie, but now they were sharing their talents,” says a family friend. “The process brought a reawakening and rediscovery of their friendship.”

Hamilton’s death was the heartbreaking coda in what, for Burnett, was a banner year. Single since her 1984 divorce from Joe (who died of cancer in 1991) after a 21-year marriage, she quietly wed Miller, whom she had been dating for three years, in November. On Nov. 26 she stunned the entertainment world when her CBS television special, comprising outtakes from her old comedy shows, drew 30 million viewers – more than the Emmys and all but the final game of the World Series. Shaken by Hamilton’s diagnosis, Burnett had wanted to call off the program – a family affair produced by daughter Jody, 35, and stepson John. “It was Carrie who said, ‘You have to do this, Mom,’ ” Conway recalls.

It couldn’t have been easy. Initially Hamilton had checked in and out of Cedars-Sinai as she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, keeping her sense of humor even as she lost her hair. When tumors spread to her brain, says comedy writer and longtime Burnett associate Buz Kohan, 68, “that was really desperation time. Carrie was completely paralyzed except for one finger.” Burnett canceled a scheduled appearance in West Palm Beach, Fla., getting Shirley MacLaine to fill in for her at an arts center anniversary celebration. Then for a short while the tumors began to shrink, and Hamilton was able to move her arm and even walk a little. Bolstered by hope, Burnett told friends her oldest daughter had done “a complete turnaround.” With Hamilton’s encouragement she made a scheduled trip to Washington, D.C., in early December to salute friend Julie Andrews at the Kennedy Center Honors. But within weeks Hamilton contracted the pneumonia, and after that Burnett rarely budged from her side.

With the exception of Hamilton’s tumultuous teen years, such closeness was the hallmark of their relationship. While growing up in Beverly Hills, Carrie and her sisters Erin, now 33, and Jody attended almost every dress rehearsal of the Emmy-winning Carol Burnett Show, which starred their mother, was produced by their father and ran for 11 years, until 1978. “We’d be out by 6 o’clock every day and by 10 p.m. on show day,” says writer Kohan. “The show was structured in such a way that Carol could spend time with her family.” Early on Burnett’s fame had little impact on Hamilton: “I never connected who my mother was with who was onstage,” she told the Denver Rocky Mountain News in 1995. “She was just a mom like everyone else.”

Mom became the enemy in 1977. After discovering her 13-year-old daughter was sneaking cigarettes, Burnett began to eavesdrop on Hamilton’s phone conversations. “I was mother tigress and not above snooping,” she told PEOPLE in 1979. Soon cigarettes became pot and alcohol; uppers, downers, psychedelics, cocaine and mushrooms followed. “I could think or talk of nothing else, and it was driving a wedge in (my) marriage,” Burnett said. When therapy failed, Burnett and Hamilton tightened the parental noose, grounding Carrie and taking away her phone. “We didn’t want her to hate us,” said Burnett, “but she already did.”

Burnett also said she felt “sorry and guilty – by then Carrie was a virtual prisoner in our house.” But she remembered her own parents, who had died of alcoholism when she was in her 20s, and dug in even harder. She signed Hamilton up for a rehab program at the Houston headquarters of the Palmer Drug Abuse Program – then kept her distance. A month into the program, a newly sober Carrie asked to see her mother. “The thing that stands out in my mind,” says Frank Beard, a program counselor who served as Hamilton’s surrogate parent during her year in the Houston program, “is how much she cherished her sobriety.”

At 17, she briefly stumbled and took to life on the streets, supporting herself with odd jobs and small music gigs before checking back into rehab. This time around, she experienced what she described as an epiphany: “I knew I wanted to be a rock star, and I couldn’t do that if I was dead.” She stayed clean.

Soon her vagabond heart found new outlets. She studied music and acting at Pepperdine University in Malibu and later appeared with the L.A. comedy troupe the Groundlings. In 1986 she joined the cast of the syndicated TV series Fame for two seasons while singing and playing keyboard with the rock band Big Business. In 1988 she won admiring reviews for her first starring role on the big screen in Tokyo Pop, playing aspiring punk rocker Wendy Reed. The role fit like Spandex. “Wendy is me,” she said of her nightclubbing, decadently clad alter ego. By then the tall, slender 24-year-old was developing a fashion sense that gave outer expression to her maverick spirit. “She would wear these 5-in. heels, and she was suddenly, like, 7-ft. tall,” says filmmaker Joanne Small. “Her closet of clothes was to die for, all of it very bold. Always boas draped somewhere, and everything about her just sparkled. Very dramatic, always.” Later that year Hamilton and Burnett visited Moscow to help introduce the first branch of Alcoholics Anonymous to the Soviet Union. It was clear the wounds in their relationship had scarred over. “We’re as close now as we were far apart then,” Burnett said at the time. Together they starred in the TV movie Hostage – in which Hamilton played a prison escapee who takes the wealthy, widowed Burnett hostage – appeared on a few TV specials and began a mother-daughter memoir that they would never complete.

– JILL SMOLOWE
– PAMELA WARRICK, ALISON SINGH GEE and RON ARIAS in Los Angeles, LAUREN COMANDER in Chicago and PATRICIA B. SMITH in Houston

Read the 1979 PEOPLE cover story where Burnett talks about confronting her daughter.

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