Actress and comedian Carol Burnett was honored by a Pennsylvania museum dedicated to actor Jimmy Stewart, a Hollywood star she was smitten with as a toddler during a trip to the movies with her grandmother in San Antonio, Texas.
"I saw this long, tall drink of water up there in black and white, and I said, 'He's my friend. I know him,' " Burnett told The Associated Press before receiving the award. "And it came to pass."
Burnett received the museum's Harvey Award at a Friday night fundraiser for the James M. Stewart Museum Foundation, based in the actor's Pennsylvania hometown of Indiana, about 45 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The banquet was a few miles away in Blairsville.
Past winners include actors Janet Leigh, Shirley Jones, Ernest Borgnine and Rich Little, the comedian and impressionist known for his stammering imitation of Stewart. The award is named for the 1950 film in which Stewart befriends an invisible rabbit. It is typically given to someone with entertainment industry connections to Stewart.
Burnett, 81, has fewer professional connections with Stewart than most past winners, nearly all of whom have worked with him professionally, but perhaps no past winner has a deeper emotional connection.
Burnett has called Stewart her idol. "I have talked about him, I have worshipped him," Burnett told the audience at the final episode of The Carol Burnett Show on March 29, 1978, ending an 11-year run on CBS, on which Stewart made a surprise appearance.
"They hid him in the dressing room from me," Burnett told The Associated Press on Friday, leaving her all but speechless when he stepped on stage that night.
"I just love Jimmy Stewart," Burnett said, remembering that trip to the movies, but not the name of the film. "It was the late '30s and in a nightclub setting. I know I was 3 or 4 because my feet couldn't touch the floor from my seat. I just remember I fell in love with that man."
Burnett grew up intending to be a writer, but switched to drama at UCLA and moved to New York, landing a role in 1955 as the ventriloquist dummy's girlfriend on The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show. (Mahoney was the dummy Winchell voiced.)
Her career took off with critical acclaim for her work in Once Upon a Mattress on Broadway and as a regular on The Garry Moore Show, a variety program hosted by her eventual second husband, both in 1959.
A year earlier, she got to meet Stewart — sort of — during a visit to his movie set of "The FBI Story" in 1958. A director at Warner Brothers had asked to meet with her about a project, and she was to meet him for lunch. When she arrived, she learned he was directing Stewart's movie, and lost her composure when she was introduced to him.
"There he was. I saw him, my idol up there," Burnett said. Not knowing what to say, she suggested they head to lunch, saying, "Well, I guess it's time to tie on the old feed bag ... I wanted to die."
Not quite through, Burnett then stepped off the movie set and into a bucket of whitewash, which she "dragged across the entire stage, and I left and never went back."
A few years later, actor George Kennedy, a mutual friend, introduced Burnett to Stewart more formally and she would keep a place for him in her heart as she'd become as famous for her TV show as he had been for his many films.
"He was just so kind and we had a good, terrific rapport," she said.