Comedienne Vicki Lawrence was 24 when she first donned a gray wig and granny glasses, climbed into a buxom-heavy costume dress, and explored the sassy senior citizen character of Thelma Mae Harper, also known as Mama.
Now 64, she’s still portraying the abrasive Southern matriarch first introduced to television audiences in 1974 on “The Carol Burnett Show,” then spun off into the TV sitcom “Mama’s Family.”
Mama, she says, is the gift that keeps on giving, especially since American culture and current events provide her with plenty of fresh material for her touring stage production called “Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show.”
“She’s great because you get to dress up like an old lady and let her talk about everything that’s driving all of us nuts,” says Lawrence from her home in Long Beach, California.
For instance, ask Mama whether she owns an iPad, posts on Facebook and follows Twitter, and Lawrence is quick to channel Mama’s gruff, no-nonsense voice for an impromptu discourse on today’s social media.
“The iPhone, iPad, the mini-pad, maxi-pad. I tell ya what, I stopped buying pads when the change of life came,” she quips.
As for tweeting on Twitter, Mama says the subject is “kinda personal” but then confesses: “Sometimes after Mexican food, a little tweet slips out. Of course, I always blame it on the dog.”
Diamond in the rough
Honing her comedic skills for 11 years as the adaptable sidekick to comic legend Carol Burnett, Lawrence managed to turn a chance TV cameo into a lifelong entertainment career.
The actress was 17 when she was “discovered” by Burnett after sending the star a local newspaper clipping noting their resemblance, along with a fan letter inviting her to watch Lawrence compete in the Miss Fireball Contest in her hometown of Inglewood, California.
“The article miraculously made its way to her desk just a day or two prior to the contest, and she called me and made arrangements to come,” muses Lawrence, who went on to win the title and impress Burnett with her star quality.
Even today, Burnett remembers her first impressions of Lawrence. “There was something about her that drew the audience to her, and that’s something you’re born with,” says Burnett, 80, who invited Lawrence to audition as her kid sister for a sketch in her upcoming TV variety show. “She bore such a resemblance to me; that was obvious,” recalls Burnett, who describes the young actress’ performance as “very raw” but brimming with potential.
“I wanted her to be a cast member, and one of the vice presidents of CBS said, ‘But she’s so rough.’ I said, ‘She’s a diamond in the rough.’ She just sort of absorbed.”
Burnett won out, and Lawrence joined Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner and eventually Tim Conway as part of Burnett’s ensemble on the fast-paced show. Performing weekly before millions of viewers from 1967 to 1978, she learned comedy and timing from the best in the business and portrayed zany characters ranging from a high-pitched bimbo to a toothless fortune-teller.
“It was a pretty special place to learn and grow,” says Lawrence, who earned one Emmy Award and five Emmy nominations for her work.
Stepping into Mama’s shoes
Lawrence was introduced to Mama in 1974 for a “Burnett Show” sketch about a dysfunctional Southern family.
The abrasive character originally was developed for Burnett, but the star felt drawn to the part of Mama’s uptight daughter, Eunice. Show costume designer Bob Mackie suggested that, with the right costume and props, the youthful Lawrence could step into Mama’s orthopedic shoes.
The result was so popular that it became a recurring sketch on Burnett’s show. “Each time we did it, [Vicki] knocked it out of the ballpark,” Burnett says. “It’s so funny. She started out as my kid sister and wound up as my mother!”
Lawrence drew part of the character from her own mother, Nettie, and also her first mother-in-law, but struggled to develop Mama when the sketch expanded into a weekly 30-minute sitcom beginning in 1983. Korman coached Lawrence to let Mama’s character blossom beyond flashes of anger and meanness. Thus, Mama changed from mean to sassy and, eventually with a new cast, Lawrence shepherded “Mama’s Family” on the air for six seasons.
Ken Berry, who played Mama’s son Vinton on the series, marveled that the young actress could convincingly portray a crabby old woman. “[Vicki had become] on “The Carol Burnett Show” one of the best sketch artists on television,” says Berry, 79, of Sylmar, California. “She put on those glasses and a wig and a fat suit, and I bought it!”
Lawrence showed the world she could sing too, when she topped the pop charts in 1973 with “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” a tune penned by then-husband Bobby Russell. She describes the song as “probably one of the only good things that came out of the whole marriage.”
In 1974, Lawrence wed Al Schultz, head of the CBS makeup department. Their daughter Courtney, 38, teaches environmental policy at Colorado State University, and son, Garrett, 36, directs her road show, which has toured intermittently since 2002.
“We make each other laugh, we’re good friends,” Lawrence says of her mate of 39 years. “I feel like the romance kind of comes and goes, and hopefully it comes back again. But through that whole thing, if you’ve got a real good friend that makes you laugh, I think it kind of works out well.”
In 2006, Lawrence nabbed a plum role as Miley Cyrus’ grandmother on “Hannah Montana,” a Disney Channel series popular with pre-teens. “It was a lot of fun. I used to say she ruined my life,” Lawrence jokes. “I can’t go anywhere now in our little beach town that I don’t have the young girls screaming at me.”
She and Burnett keep in touch, and Burnett says their relationship has evolved from the days when she felt like Lawrence’s maternal big sister. “She was more like a little puppy, and then as she matured and the show matured, we became very close friends, and we are to this day,” Burnett says.
As for Mama, Lawrence has no qualms about portraying such an explosive character in today’s nosy, short-tempered society.
“Everybody knows this lady,” she says. “Everybody has one in their family, and that’s why it’s so fun to watch.”