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Vicki Lawrence is a TV pioneer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Vicki Lawrence is grateful to have a place in TV history.

As a member of the award-winning and groundbreaking “The Carol Burnett Show” from 1967 to 1978, Lawrence cultivated a career that is going on 50 years.

Television host Carol Burnett, center, sits with Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence, on the set during taping of her final episode of “The Carol Burnett Show” for CBS-TV in Los Angeles on March 17, 1978. (AP Photo/George Brich)

After the variety show, she found success as Thelma Harper on the series “Mama’s Family.”

With reruns of “The Carol Burnett Show” and “Mama’s Family,” Lawrence is finding a new generation of fans. Both shows air on MeTV in Albuquerque.

Lawrence was traveling and stopped in the Duke City recently.

In her time here, she was able to eat dinner and experience a monsoon storm.

Lawrence is also gearing up for the 50th anniversary of “The Carol Burnett Show.” It picked up 25 prime-time Emmy Awards and was ranked No. 16 on TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.”

“I would say it was the last great variety show,” Lawrence says. “I feel like I got to touch the golden age of television being on this show.”

Burnett plucked her from obscurity because she resembled the comedienne.

Vicki Lawrence

Lawrence cut her teeth playing various characters.

In fact, Lawrence says, the writers created the role of Thelma Harper specifically for Burnett to play.

“It was supposed to be Carol,” she says of the role. “The writers were just devastated when she wanted to play Eunice. They wrote this (sketch) as an homage to their families. Carol ruined it from the get-go. She didn’t want the part, so it came my way. It changed my life.”

Lawrence never imagined a life in the entertainment world.

Growing up in California, she wanted to go to college and learn how to clean teeth.

“And marry a dentist,” she says. “I got kidnapped by show business.”

As television changed, Lawrence says, the variety show laid down a great foundation.

“The Carol Burnett Show” almost didn’t happen.

Lawrence played Thelma Harper on “Mama’s Family.”

Burnett was signed to a holding deal back in the 1960s.

“If you were relatively talented, the network would put together a holding deal,” Lawrence says. “In (Carol’s) deal, there was a clause that she could do a series of her choice. She and her husband decided at the eleventh hour to do a variety show because the contract was going to expire.”

Network executives told her variety shows weren’t a woman’s game.

“They never expected it to fly,” Lawrence says. “Carol always told us we were just trying to do a good job. We never thought, ‘Fifty years from now, we’ll be so famous.’ ”

Lawrence says Burnett is planning a 50th anniversary show on Oct. 4 with CBS.

The surviving cast members will reunite in CBS’ Studio 33 – where the show was originally filmed.

“I feel like I’ve been so lucky,” she says. “My life has been a hysterical adventure.”

Lawrence continues to act and was a featured guest on the NBC series “Great News,” created by Tina Fey.

“Tina Fey calls up and says she wants me to do a little part on the show,” she says. “Of course I do it.”

The 68-year-old comedian is also the spokeswoman for chronic idiopathic urticaria – a form of chronic hives.

After the first outbreak accompanied by an intense itch, Lawrence tried to figure out the cause of her illness, with little success.

“I was at my wit’s end. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I stopped drinking red wine, I changed soap, and I submerged my hands in bowls of ice water. I started avoiding things that I thought were causing the hives,” she says. “I want to be open about my condition to show others that they are not alone in their struggle with this form of chronic hives.”

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