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Arts & Culture » Movies

Funny lady

by David R. Guarino

Lily Tomlin. Photo: Brett Patterson
Lily Tomlin. Photo: Brett Patterson  

In a world of one-hit wonders, reality shows and endless competitions, the enduring career of comedienne, actress, producer and writer Lily Tomlin remains a constant.

With two Tony Awards, six Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, a Grammy, a Cable Ace Award, an Outer Critics' Circle Award and a Drama Desk Award to her credit, the Detroit, Michigan native has achieved more success in the entertainment industry than most people do in an entire lifetime. But Tomlin remains on top of her game. She is cutting edge, current and always evolving. Though she has tackled serious acting, animation, drama, producing and writing her game is truly comedy.

Tomlin's career spans over 40 years from her earliest days as a standup comic in Detroit and NYC to her Tony-winning one-woman Broadway show, Appearing Nightly. From her first TV appearance on The Gary Moore Show in 1966, Tomlin went on to international success as the gum-chewing, snorting telephone operator-from-hell Ernestine on the 70s comedy show Laugh In. AT&T offered Tomlin a cool half-million to film a commercial featuring the lovably obnoxious operator. Tomlin declined, believing such a move would compromise her artistic integrity.

Tomlin has brought her own unique sensibility to such films as 9 to 5, Nashville, The Late Show, And the Band Played On, and Tea with Mussolini. Her continuing role as Deborah Fiderer on the NBC drama series The West Wing has brought her serious praise and a new audience.

Next for the indefatigable Tomlin is a role in Paul Schrader's new film, The Walker. She has also just completed a comedy pilot for HBO, 12 Miles of Bad Road . Perhaps the only thing more enduring than Tomlin's diverse career is her 36-year relationship with her life partner, Jane Wagner.

David Guarino: In creating Ernestine, did your own experiences with the phone company serve as your inspiration?

Lily Tomlin: Well, I was living in New York at the time, the mid-60s, and everybody just loathed the phone company because not only was it a monopoly, but it really didn't care about the needs of the private subscriber. You know, you had a hard time getting service. So in response to a request for a new phone or repair, she would say something like, "Are you going to be home between April and November?"

I never really expected to be on TV, I just wanted to be a New York actor. So I used to go to the local improv and do my routines. As I started out with Ernestine, I began as a tough New York operator. As Ernestine threatened people, it became very organic, it was sort of sexually repressed, dealing with all that petty bureaucracy. My body reacted, got tighter and tighter, and my face got tight. And when my face gets tight, I snort! It's just one of those things that touches a nerve.

It's hard to focus your dislike now because there are so many phone companies.

Do you enjoy live theatre more than films?

Yeah, basically I do. I love being able to do a little bit of everything, but I prefer live performances. I don't tour that much, this year in March, April and May. Then I'm pretty much laying off, because I have a part in that new HBO series, 12 Miles of Bad Road.

It should be fun, and we start shooting that at the end of August. So I'll be busy with that, then sometimes I'm able to fit a movie. But I've never stopped touring for 35 years.

One of my favorite movies of yours is Tea with Mussolini. What was it like working with Maggie Smith, Dame Judith Dench and Joan Plowright?

Oh, that was divine! We were in Italy for three months, and I was like a damn groupie! I was running around all the time looking for teacups, and serving tea to Maggie and Judi. We were in Florence, and it was so hot! It must have been July or August, and I'd run out and hold an umbrella over Judi. Because she's so fair! I was just thrilled to be there with them. I remember saying to Cher, "I hope we don't embarrass the US."

You narrated and executive-produced The Celluloid Closet.

Oh, I executive-produced in name, I really didn't do very much besides fundraising. Rob [Epstein] and Jeffrey [Friedman], the filmmakers, are so gifted and wonderful, and Vito [Russo, the author] was a good friend of mine. It just seemed like a great project. I didn't initiate the project other than knowing Vito and being close to him. After Vito died, Rob and Jeffrey came to me with the project, and we did a big fundraiser in the Castro, which was the seed money. One day, Rob and Jeffrey came over, and I said we should just go to HBO and pitch the idea; it's right up their alley, they'll probably love it and give you the money to finish it. And that happened.

Does it amaze you that the GLBT community has come as far as it has in the last several decades?

Yes! I'm sort of thrilled, and I really have to admire this generation. There has been a real spirit of community that is really strong and brilliant. I remember when things were extremely covert. I was never a regular at any particular bar or anything, but I had friends who were slightly older, and I know all those old tales from the 50s.

The police coming in and raiding.

It was ridiculous. Unbelievable. And people were terrified of losing their jobs, or personal censure from friends and family. Gays and lesbians today have their own sense of absolute personhood.

Do you think it's a good thing that gays and lesbians may have the right to marry?

Well, I'm not a religious person, and marriage is sort of bound in a religious base. In some ways, and this could be my own generation talking, it's imitative, and I don't like that. And yet, if two people want to get married, I absolutely think that they should have the right to do that. I almost wish we could invent something different. Something of our own. But it's for people who really want to be assimilated or recognized; I guess I've always felt a little outside the culture.