Over the years, TV has been home to some memorable sitcom moms: "Maude," "Roseanne," "The Cosby Show's" Clair Huxtable, "Good Times' " Florida Evans and, going way back, "Leave It To Beaver's" June Cleaver. But no one ruled the roost quite like Thelma Harper, the sharp-tongued, sensitivity-challenged matriarch of "Mama's Family." She was brought memorably to life -- in gray wig, sack dress and support hose -- by actress Vicki Lawrence, first on "The Carol Burnett Show" and later on her own sitcom that ran from 1983-90 (on NBC and then in syndication).
For years, legal entanglements kept the series from being released on DVD, but it is finally available. To mark the occasion, CNN spoke with Lawrence about her most famous role and other career highlights, like recording one of the most popular songs of the 1970s and working with a young Miley Cyrus. This is an edited version of the conversation.
CNN: When did you first play "Mama"?
Vicki Lawrence: This is our 40th anniversary this year; 40 years since I upchucked Mama (laughs).
CNN: Who dreamed up the character of Mama and her family?
Lawrence: She was written by two of the writers on (Carol Burnett's) show, both of whom hated their mothers. So they sort of wrote this beautiful homage to their dysfunctional families and gave it to Carol as a one-time sketch. They had written -- lovingly written -- "Mama" for her. (But) when she read the script, she said, "I think I would like to play Eunice." (The writers) were kind of upset about that. She said, "I think I would like Vicki to play Mama," which was (even) more upsetting to them. When we got to rehearsal, Carol said, "I really think this needs to be Southern," because it sort of seemed like "Tennessee Williams gone nuts" to her. So we rehearsed it Southern. ... The writers were so upset when they saw it the first time, they walked out. They said, "You're going to offend the entire Southern half of the country! And you've ruined it! You've ruined our piece!"
CNN: What do you remember about playing the character the first time?
Lawrence: The first time we ever did (Mama and Eunice) in rehearsal, we were nervous. We knew it was good, but we were nervous. Carol and I would often, before the first big run-through of the week, meet each other in the ladies' room, just having our last little nervous tinkle before the run-through, because it was nerve-wracking. Carol used to call (the first run-through) "Judgment at Nuremberg." And so I went into the ladies' room the Wednesday afternoon that we were doing our first run-through, and I went into a stall, and I closed the door. I just sat there, and I was kind of contemplating everything, and I heard this voice in the stall next to me say, "Mama?" And I said (to myself), "Ah, we're gonna do a little improv here!" So I said (adopting Mama's twang), "What the hell is it, Eunice?" Carol said (in her Eunice voice), "I just need some toilet paper." And I said (in character) "Well, I'm busy right now, Eunice." And she said, "Well, I need a couple pieces of paper." I said, "Well, when I'm done doing what I'm doing if I've got any toilet paper left I'll get you your damn paper!" Carol hollered (as Eunice), "OK, FINE! FINE! FINE!" We had a huge argument (in character) seated on the toilets. We came out; we high-fived. We said, "This is gonna be great." We went back into the rehearsal hall, did the family sketch for the very first time -- and like I said, the writers walked out, they were so upset. But we knew. We knew we had something special.
CNN: Did the character of Mama evolve at all once she became the center of her own show?
Lawrence: She was kind of mean and judgmental and sort of one-dimensional on "The Carol Burnett Show." When we went to sitcom, it didn't feel right to me. She felt too mean. I remember we did like two episodes, and I shut everything down. I said, 'You guys, you've gotta bring in Harvey (Korman) for me," because Harvey Korman was such a mentor to me. ... Harvey came in and said, "You know, you've now got to make her a sitcom character. She can't be this mean old angry woman. ... You've got to make her silly and fun." And he was responsible for turning her loose and making her the fun character that she ultimately became.
CNN: Why do you think people enjoy this character so much?
Lawrence: She said what she was feeling. She said what was on her mind. ... I think Mama was very true to her generation, don't you think? Sort of, you know, set those boundaries and put down those rules and that discipline. But she was fun.
CNN: You were playing a character much older than you were in real life. How was that for you?
Lawrence: People say to me all the time, "How did such a young woman play an old woman?" But it's kind of what I did (on "The Carol Burnett Show"). I was the supporting female on Carol's show, so while she was being Shirley Temple, I was the mean old schoolmarm; while she was the princess, I was the wicked old witch; while she was Eunice, I was Eunice's mother. At the time, it was just another old lady to play. And I really just tried to find an older version of what she was doing with Eunice.
CNN: The great Betty White played your daughter on "Mama's Family." That's ironic given that she's 27 years older than you.
Lawrence: Betty, she's still just the funniest -- she's got the best, best (comedic) timing. Well, and Carol, too. I look at some of the early episodes where I'm working with Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Dorothy Lyman and Carol Burnett and me on the same set together and I just think I had such an incredible supporting cast and was so lucky to work with all of these wonderful women. They're just the best. The best of the best.
CNN: Mama had a distinctive wardrobe, distinctive in its plainness.
Lawrence: I hear from many a man around Halloween that's dressed up as Mama for Halloween. It's a great costume. You could scare the crap out of the kids (laughs).
CNN: Who cooked up the outfits?
Lawrence: (Costume designer) Bob Mackie did all of the original costuming for the family. ... He built Mama into a slip, so you just literally stepped into that body and zipped it on. I had many lovely polyester dresses, as you might recall. And the wig -- it's a very inexpensive little wig; the glasses, the pearls, the earrings, the watch -- I mean, every detail. Bob was so detail-oriented. The best shoes I've ever had on my feet in my life.
The only contribution I made was to mush the socks down, because that reminded me of my own grandma who was from southern Missouri. When Bob stepped aside and I looked in the mirror -- I looked at the whole thing, and I said (in Mama's voice), "Good Lord, I'm dysfunctional!" I mean there she was, in front of you. ... When we did the series, Bob handed off all the wardrobe to Rhett Turner, and Rhett, I have to say, did a beautiful job of dressing the family.
CNN: In the midst of your time on "The Carol Burnett Show," in 1972, you recorded this incredibly popular song, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia."
Lawrence: I was married to (Bobby Russell), the guy that wrote that song, for like 10 minutes. And it was really the only good thing that came out of that whole dang marriage (laughs).
CNN: The original idea was that someone else would record it?
Lawrence: Bobby writes the song, but he hates the song! I finally said to him one night,"What the heck? This is a smash!" And he said, "I hate it. If you like it, you do the demo." So I did the demo. We took it out to Hollywood, to his producer, who was "Snuff" Garrett, and Snuff said, "This is a pretty good little song." Snuff tried to give it to everybody. He said, "I'm gonna send it over to Cher." Well, Sonny (Bono) vetoed it. He said, "It's gonna offend the South. Cher won't do it unless it's rewritten." And Bobby said, "Well, I don't like the song anyway, so why the hell would I rewrite it?" Finally, Snuff threw his hands up and said, "To hell with it, let's just go in the studio and do it with Vicki." And so I had this one huge hit.