She sang in bars at 3, crowned herself "Waitress of the Week" in her scuffling days and hasn't stopped reinventing herself yet.
JANUARY 22, 2001
BY James Kaplan
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor Kathryn McCarver
Tomlin at 61: “I think I’m better than 15 years ago, I know I’m deeper,” says Tomlin in The Search. Photographed in New York, October 31.
Lily Tomlin is frazzled. Normally, she lives quietly in Hollywood with her partner of three decades, Jane Wagner, and their dog Princess, a 7‑year‑old cattle dog‑corgi mixed‑breed, cataloging her archive of taped performances, surfing the Web and reading books. But now she has come to New York for a revival of her 1985 one‑woman Broadway show, The Searchfor Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which Wagner wrote for her. Tomlin has spent the morning looking for a suitable apartment for her and Wagner for the next few months, and it's put her in a tizzy.
"I wish I lived on a farm," Tomlin says, looking as un‑farmerlike as possible in a black pantsuit ,velvet scarf and wraparound sunglasses. "Too bad we can't have our apartment in New York but [also] have a henhouse and go and collect eggs. I'd just pick the eggs in the morning and then lie in the hammock the rest of the day. And maybe the cow would come over, you know, and she'd nuzzle me. And the pony ‑ I'd give the pony a little carrot."
She smiles that gigantic smile. This is, after all, a woman who has spent the past 30 years transforming herself into characters ranging from Ernestine, the fascistic telephone operator, and Edith Ann, the mischievous 5‑year‑old, on Rowan & Martin's Laugh‑In in the late '60s and early '70s, to the 16 people she plays in The Search, including the mistress of ceremonies, Trudy, a Times Square bag lady who believes she talked to aliens. Trudy may have lost her mind ('I refuse to be intimidated by reality anymore. What is reality anyway? Nothing but a collective hunch"), but she is clearly also onto something big.
Tomlin steps through the show's paces seven times a week with amazing looseness and verve, bending and stretching like a person half her age. She says she doesn't think about having recently turned 61. "My assistant stage manager is 24, but it never dawns on me that I'm probably older than her grandmother." She laughs. "I am blessed. I've always been flexible, and I have a lot of energy. And that's kind of why I wanted to do the play, too. In a certain way, I think I'm better than when I did it 15 years ago. I mean, I know I feel I'm deeper."
Candice Bergen felt triumphant when she persuaded Tomlin to play her neurotic boss, Kay, on Murphy Brown in the show's final seasons, in 1997 and 1998. "Lily took us to a higher standard," Bergen says. "She is such a deep and detailed actor. She works very meticulously on giving that character nuance and texture and quirks -especially quirks. She's very funny, but so honest." Still, it's one thing to play Murphy Brown's boss, quite another to credibly portray The Search's Agnus Angst, a screaming 17‑year‑old punk‑performance artist "What can I say?" Tomlin says. "I think back to my childhood, and one of my biggest things was I realized that every grown‑up had been a child. And when I got that my mother had been a child, it was all over, you know. I got that they didn't really know anything. My teachers didn't know anything. It's liberating, and it also makes the ground sort of uneven. Because there's nobody to look to. It's not that I disrespected my mother and father. I just knew how vulnerable they were."
Lillie Mae and Guy Tomlin left rural Kentucky during the Depression to find work in Detroit. Guy got a job at an auto‑assembly plant; Lillie Mae worked as a nurse's aide. Guy found refuge from his problems in drinking. Oddly enough, his young daughter, Mary Jean, was his bar buddy. She was not just good company but good entertainment. The first number Lily Tomlin (she adopted her mother's name when she began her career) remembers singing for her father and his drinking pals was "Shoo‑Fly Pie." "That was big when I was little, like 3 years old," she says. "I bopped. I wagged my legs, and I was always kind of soulful."
Mary Jean, her younger brother, Richard, and their parents lived in a seedy apartment in a rough neighborhood. "Across from the Herman Keefer Hospital," Tomlin recalls. "By the time I was in junior high, it was a mostly black neighborhood. So I had a lot of black friends. It's the old ghetto, really ‑ the neighborhood that burned down in the '67 riots. My old apartment house was gutted and burned. It stood there for many years, and then they finally tore it down."
But Mary Jean was enlivened rather than oppressed by her surroundings. A neighbor in the building, Mrs. Rupert, a faded Blanche DuBois type, took Mary Jean under her wing and gave her lessons on how to be a lady. At 10, the ever‑resourceful Mary Jean started a babysitting service, watching a dozen or so tots at a time for a buck a head.
At the inner‑city high school she attended, Cass Tech, she was one of the cool kids, wearing a leather jacket and studying theater. She went on to Wayne State University in Detroit, where she kept studying drama but decided to become a doctor. "I fantasized myself being respected and saving lives," she laughs. "Doing something wonderful, you know."
Then she dropped out. "I was never a good student. I didn't study. In fact, I think I had narcolepsy ‑ if I'd open a book I'd fall asleep immediately. The only thing that interested me was theater. And I got into one of the university plays." The play was The Madwoman of Chaillot; Tomlin had a walk‑on (as a cafe patron descending a winding staircase) that she turned into a tour de force. After leaving college, she did stand‑up comedy and skits at Detroit jazz clubs. "I wore sunglasses from sundown to sunup," she says. "You thought you were, like, so hip."
New York beckoned. It was 1965. Tomlin got an apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, found a job with a casting director and began performing on the coffeehouse circuit at places like Upstairs at the Downstairs, the Cafe au Go‑Go and the Improvisation.
She laughs at the memory. "I used to have a lot of old antique clothes that I bought in the thrift shops," she says. "And I had a big, white fox fur. I mean, it was real ratty‑looking but at night it looked great. So I'd take the subway up, go over to the theater [district] and rent a limo. I knew you could get a limo since they were waiting for people in the theater, and I'd give him 10 bucks and he'd drive me up to the Improv. I'd sweep in, in this big outfit and do 10 minutes and sweep out and get in that car and drive away."
Lily was becoming Lily. It was right around this time that she landed the Howard Johnson gig that would become part of Tomlin lore. "It was, like, the first and oldest Howard Johnson's in New York," Tomlin says. "Very small. Counter, booths and a couple of tables down the center. We had the old uniforms from the '30s ‑ shapeless, cut on the bias so that the waist drops if you don't have hips.
"And everybody was a wannabe actress, so they'd roll up a hem so their dress was real short. And me, I would wear it completely regulation." She laughs. "I wore big duty shoes with ripple soles. And I'd wear that paper hat with a hairnet."
One day, Tomlin was sent over to the new Howard Johnson's on Eighth Avenue to get some supplies. There she saw a plaque on the Wall: HOWARD JOHNSON'S WAITRESS OF THE WEEK It was the kind of moment in which a Lily Tomlin character is born.
"I come back to the boss," Tomlin says, "and I say, 'How come we don't have a Waitress of the Week?' So he says, 'We're not in the inner workings. They don't even check on us anymore.' So I just appointed myself the Howard Johnson's Waitress of the Week. I would duck down [below the counter] because it was so tiny, and the microphone echoed everywhere, and I'd say 'Attention, diners! Your Howard Johnson's Waitress of the Week, Miss Lily Tomlin, is about to make an appearance on the floor. Let's all give her a big hand!' And I'd step out and show how the other girls were, like, not in regulation"
Within a year, she was on national TV doing comic monologues on The Garry Moore Show (where she tap‑danced by sticking taps to the soles of her bare feet). And then, her sunniness sustaining her through , the usual show‑business wrong turns and hard knocks, she wound up on Laugh‑In.
She got famous. Overnight, Ernestine and Edith Ann became national bywords. But at the same time, something was missing. "I had gotten famous being funny and doing funny characters," Tomlin says. "And inhabiting the characters, I guess. It didn't hurt to be on a top‑five show like Laugh‑In ‑ I would get to introduce characters. It's a long time ago, too, and I was alone in the field, pretty much."
She had always paid writers to create her material, but when it came time to record her first Edith Ann album, the material she had, while funny, "wasn't deep enough," she says. Then a friend told her to watch a TV movie called J.T. It was about a young black boy in the inner city. "It was about a kid, and I was looking to make Edith Ann better," Tomlin says. "And it was so essenced. It was like poetry. Every line was like a perception. And yet it moved everything and seemed naturalistic even though it was heightened. It was tender, it was funny, it was satiric, it was edgy."
It was written by Jane Wagner.
Tomlin sent Wagner a letter. They met; they clicked. They've worked and lived together ever since.
I don't like to talk about my private life in any detail, but I don't disavow my private life," Tomlin says. "I also don't want to become someone's poster girl, either. And, you know, that's been somewhat difficult in terms of the movement. I've tried to be as simple and direct as I can without being exploited or tabloidized."
It hasn't always been easy. In 1995, the novelist Armistead Maupin (Tales of the
City) claimed that Tomlin reneged on a promise to come out publicly in return for his writing a narration (which Tomlin recited) for The Celluloid Closet, a documentary film about Hollywood's treatment of gay and lesbian characters. "My feeling was the narrator should be an openly gay person or a sympathetic straight person," Maupin told the press. "Instead, I have to endure the cruel irony of a film called The Celluloid Closet narrated by a closeted person."
Tomlin merely smiles at the mention of Maupin's name. "Oh, Armistead, he's been after me for a long time," she says.
Until recently, Tomlin and Wagner had lived for years in WC. Fields's former home, a big, Mediterranean‑style house in a gated enclave of Hollywood. "It's a great old neighborhood," she says. "Chaplin's and DeMille's houses were right across the street. Now how could I sell a house like that? Am I stupid?" She shakes her head. "I thought, you know, you should be able to release things, just let them go.
"So I found a modern house that was impeccable. Simple, clean, lovely house, with a very beautiful tennis court. And it has some computerized thing, like when the mail comes, it says 'Your mail has arrived.' It's goofy and fun."
The couple live a quiet domestic existence when Tomlin is in town: Wagner agonizes over her writing, looking for any excuse to take a break; Tomlin retypes clean copies of the work on her computer while Princess puts her paws on her lap to dissuade her from working. Tomlin reads David Sedaris aloud to Wagner, "'cause he's so darn funny." She listens to Annie Lennox and to the recorded speeches of her old friend the late New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, "because she's extraordinary." And she listens to talk radio.
"I mean, I listen to everybody. Rush and Imus and Howard Stem, Dr. Laura," she says. "I listen to everybody to hear what they're saying." The voices are out there.