If you watch the November 24 telecast in which legendary comedienne and actress Carol Burnett receives the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, chances are you’ll see a roster of notable entertainers onstage to honor her, but you probably won’t recognize one woman on the program. Burnett specifically requested that voiceover artist Rosemary Watson appear at the ceremony. Why would someone of Burnett’s stature think of a young relative unknown like Watson? It’s because Burnett has publicly expressed her gratefulness for the breaks she has received in her career, and she has chosen to pay it forward.
Watson tells the story as only she can:
I was driving along, five-year old in tow, and my cell phone rang. The number said, ‘BLOCKED’. I picked it up (admittedly without a headset on) thinking it was my son’s father and I’d quickly hand the phone to my boy in the back seat. It was not his dad. I put the phone on speaker and the familiar voice said, “Hello Rosemary? This is Carol Burnett.”
The world went into slow motion. (And this, children, is why you should never talk on your cell phone and drive!! Your idol might call you and you could freak out.)
But the weird part is, I knew why she was calling and, I was expecting it even though I was unprepared. A week or so earlier I had written a letter to Ms. Burnett at 2 am. I was unable to sleep that night and I started thinking about my life and how I had come to be doing mostly voiceovers for a living (albeit a rocky one). I thought about my childhood and the years I spent mimicking Carol Burnett and her vast characters.
She graciously pretended that I wasn’t acting like a moron and said, “I got your letter, and I just went to your website.” I began trying to suck air from the atmosphere. I told her I needed to pull-over. She felt badly….”Oh, you’re driving”. “No it’s okay.” I pulled into the strip mall. She continued to talk about my videos and singing and I think she said the words “you’re” and “amazing” or “terrific” together? I don’t quite remember but let’s just say adjectives were used and they sounded pretty good.
Burnett arranged for Watson to audition with Lorne Michaels for Saturday Night Live, and the producers called Watson back for a second audition. Unfortunately, she didn’t make the show. But Burnett has plugged Watson’s work on the Tonight Show and CBS This Morning. She told one interviewer:
“Sometimes I get a sixth sense about people from their fan letters, and I want to do something,” Burnett said. “That’s how Vicki Lawrence ended up on my show. She wrote a fan letter, and I tracked her down.”
That’s right – Lawrence’s Emmy-winning career began with a fan letter to Carol Burnett. She saw Lawrence’s talent, hired her for television, and the rest is showbiz history.
Why does Burnett take the time to nurture and encourage undiscovered talent and help them score their big break? Because someone believed enough in her to help her when she first started out.
Burnett says she believes in Watson’s talent and wants to repeat a kindness shown to her in 1954, when a La Jolla businessman saw Burnett perform at a San Diego gala and lent her $1,000 to go to New York. “When he gave me the money, there were four stipulations,” Burnett said. “I promised to pay it back within five years if I could, and I did, to the day. I had to use the money to go to New York, which I did. That I never reveal his name, and I haven’t. And if I’m successful, I will help other people in the same way, and I have … several times.”
I’ve loved Carol Burnett as long as I can remember for her comic abilities and for her connection to her audience. She’s a genuinely unique talent – and obviously a class act. I can’t wait to see if Burnett’s interest in Watson’s talent will pay off. I’m betting it will.