Carol Burnett's Twilight Zone episode was meant to launch a whole new series
She brought a funny element from her real-life experience as a movie theater usher to the role.
Carol Burnett wasn’t always the queen of classic TV comedy. Before her movie career and hit variety show, she was a struggling student, attending classes at UCLA while working at a movie theater on Hollywood boulevard. After a stranger gave her $1,000 to get started in show business, she left for New York City and soon was performing on Broadway.
Her musical theater chops led to appearances on late-night programs. Her first regular gig on TV was The Garry Moore Show, where she was a cast member for years in the early Sixties. One target of the sketch series’ good-natured ribbing was The Twilight Zone.
Rod Serling appreciated the parodies and wrote a part for Burnett in a pilot he was writing for CBS. The new show was about a guardian angel who comes down to earth to help forsaken humans live the lives they’ve always wanted.
It was a reworked concept from an earlier pilot he had pitched. That first guardian angel show was rejected by the network, so Serling turned it into The Twilight Zone episode “Mr. Bevis.” He was under contract for another pilot script and thus wrote another episode about heaven and earth for a new show called The Side of the Angels. The main difference between both pitches being that in the “Mr. Bevis” script, the angel and human characters would be regulars appearing in every episode whereas in the second try, the show would focus on a guardian angel helping a different person each week.
CBS ultimately passed on Serling’s second script as well, so he also adapted it for his famous anthology show, creating the episode “Cavender is Coming.” It’s a polarizing installment to say the least. Many consider it a rare Serling miss, while others enjoy the laughs and lighter moments. The episode originally aired with a laugh track, but thankfully it has been taken off in the years since.
Even if it’s not the most riveting Twilight Zone plot, it’s interesting to see Carol Burnett in such an early role. She also contributed to the story around her character. While working at that theater in Hollywood, Burnett had a manager that refused to talk to employees, instead implementing hand signals to communicate across the lobby. As she told the Archive of American Television, “We had a crazy manager who wouldn’t talk to us, but just did signals. I was called the spot girl because I was the tallest and had the loudest voice.”
She was also fired from her college theater job for refusing to let a couple into a movie. But for good reason! They were about to walk into Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train right before the end. Carol knew it would be better to wait for the next showing and watch it from the beginning. Her manager didn’t see it that way.
Carol got the last laugh, however. When she got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she decided to put it right outside that theater.