Carol Burnett talks . . . about her new drama; and a chat with 'Square Pegs' producer
New York — Carol Burnett is playing the part of an alcoholic in a new TV drama, in what has become for her a lifelong crusade against alcoholism.
She talks quite openly about the fact that both of her parents were alcoholics. ''I remember feeling that it was my fault that my father drank so much. I felt he didn't love me,'' she says.
Next week she stars in Life of the Party: The Story of Beatrice (CBS, Wednesday, 9-11 p.m.), playing the real-life part of Beatrice O'Reilly, who solved her own drinking problem and has gone on to help many other people solve theirs by operating a recovery house where people can get help from other controlled alcoholics.
Miss Burnett now lives in Maui, Hawaii, making only occasional trips to the mainland. I spoke with her by phone recently from California. She talks freely about her unusual childhood: She was brought up by her grandmother because both parents were uncontrolled alcoholics. Indeed, part of the damage this problem can inflict is to deprive children of their own parents.
Doing this ''Life of the Party'' was a labor of love and commitment for her. ''My feelings about myself and my parents are very common among children of alcoholics,'' she says. ''They think they must be doing something wrong, otherwise their parents wouldn't drink so much . . . if they really love their child.''
Miss Burnett now often speaks at events sponsored by organizations fighting alcoholism. She always makes it clear that she speaks as the child of alcoholic parents.
Does she feel now that she was a deprived child?
She thinks for a moment. ''Only in the sense that I was deprived of my parents. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if we had been able to grow up together . . .'' she says wistfully.
''Life of the Party'' is a straightforward account of Miss O'Reilly's life - she is a Texan who drank to be the life of the party, to be loved by everybody. When her life was in ruins, she finally turned to Alcoholics Anonymous for help and managed to turn her life around. She now spends all of her time helping other alcoholics overcome their drinking problem by operating a halfway house.
The somewhat harrowing script by Mitzie Welch is terse and sparse, with specific AA methods glossed over. In the long run it is an inspirational story, but the main things the special has going for it are the compassion of the real Beatrice and the superb performance of Miss Burnett, who once more sheds her comic image and creates a totally believable dramatic character.
She doesn't plan to do another series for a while, content to see her old shows in syndication all over the world. However, she says she constantly reads scripts for dramatic shows. ''But, I don't want to do anything this fall,'' she says. Then she laughs the familiar throaty Burnett laugh. ''Unless, of course, it's with Laurence Olivier or Katharine Hepburn.''
Does Burnett believe that her childhood uncertainty about the love of her parents was a force in her decision to become a comedienne, one who turned out to be loved by millions?
She is quiet for a moment. "Yes, I suppose so. I understand now that they loved me. And that their drinking problem was not my fault. But it took a long time for that understanding to sink in. I just hope this program helps many children of alcoholics to understand the samed thing about their parents."
Anne Beatts, producer of the new CBS series, ''Square Pegs'' doesn't want the show, which concerns itself with the serious problems of adolescents in a lighthearted way, to become known as ''Unhappy Days.''
In New York to talk about the new series, which premieres on Monday (CBS, 8-8 :30 p.m.), Miss Beatts stresses the fact that humor will be integrated into the characters of the leads, and she is trying to avoid teen-age shtick humor - that is, the once all-too-familiar ''Ye Gads, Dad'' kind of thing. However, Miss Beatts, whose previous TV experience has been solely as a writer on ''Saturday Night Live,'' doesn't want to go for the sometimes way-out grossness of that show either.
''Believe it or not,'' she says, ''I can tell you from the fan mail that a lot of very young kids watched that late-night show.''
She is a native of Buffalo, N.Y., was educated in Canada, and served as an editor of the National Lampoon before she went to ''Saturday Night Live.'' For her new series she says she did lots of research in high schools.
''I wanted to see if things have changed very much from my high school days about 20 years ago,'' she said. ''You know, things changed radically for a while , especially morality, but now there seems to be a swing back to conservativism. Attitudes about sex and marriage are once again more traditional. Girls seem to be less liberated again, after going through an independent stage. They are now into dating, marriage, etc. That's what 'Square Pegs' is all about.
''The thing that has changed most is the language. But we have real kids in the cast to make sure we don't make errors about that. It doesn't always work the way we expected, though.
''In one show recently we had a joke about tube tops for girls and one of the kids in the show said that nobody wears tube tops anymore. I said to her: 'Believe me, there are pockets of tube topism in the rest of the country if not in Hollywood. So, we left the tube-top joke in.''
Miss Beatts says she wants the show to deal with the day-to-day little problems of adolescence. Like should you break a date with your best friend if a boy calls for a date; and if little white lies are acceptable as long as nobody is hurt.
Is there a mass audience for that kind of show?
''I don't think 'what do people want to see' when I write. I think 'what do I want to see,' '' she said. ''I just hope there are enough people out there who share my taste.''
From the way-out borderline tastelessness of ''Saturday Night Live'' to the slight, sensitive humor of the projected ''Square Pegs'' is a big jump for Anne Beatts. Can she make the transition?
''Listen,'' she says with a kind of good-humored intensity, ''I was never involved in the coarse and gritty stuff that some people might have objected to on the late-night show. But in the teen-age world, the word 'neat' has never gone away. It's been hanging in there through many changes in teen-age style. So it is with honesty, sensitivity, and humor. They never went out of style either. That's what our show is all about.''