Lily Tomlin returns

by Sari Staver

Lily Tomlin: "It's hard to believe I'm 79." Photo: Courtesy the artist
Lily Tomlin: "It's hard to believe I'm 79." Photo: Courtesy the artist  

The incomparable Lily Tomlin returns to the Bay Area stage for a benefit performance of her one-woman show "An Evening of the Classic Lily Tomlin." The award-winning actress will perform a two-hour multimedia show on Thurs., Sept. 20, 8 p.m. at U.C. Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, to benefit One Fair Wage, a national campaign to pass legislation requiring the restaurant industry to pay all its employees the minimum wage.

The Zellerbach show includes appearances by a number of Tomlin's classic characters, on video and in person, as well as an informal conversation with the audience. Following the show, ticket-holders who donate at least $100 to OFW will have a rare opportunity to meet the actress at a private reception at the theatre, where a professional photographer will be shooting souvenir pictures.

Tomlin began her career performing off-Broadway in the 1960s. Her breakout role was as a cast member on the variety show "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" from 1969-73, where she introduced her classic characters Ernestine, a nosy, condescending telephone operator who treated customers with little sympathy; and Edith Ann, a precocious five-year-old who waxed philosophical on everyday life.

Tomlin has received awards throughout her career, including six Emmys, a Tony for each of her one-woman Broadway shows, a Grammy for her comedy album, and two Peabodys. She is currently in her fifth season in the Netflix hit series "Frankie and Grace." Earlier this year, the Los Angeles LGBT Center's Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center was honored with the Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence in theatre by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, in recognition of producing two decades of providing "life-enriching productions and performances."

The B.A.R. caught up with Tomlin on Sept. 1, her 79th birthday, just before she and Wagner were headed out to celebrate with a 14-year-old family friend who shared the same birthday. In a half-hour phone interview from her home in LA, Tomlin answered dozens of questions about her personal, professional, and political life, as well as explaining why One Fair Wage is so important to her.

Tomlin said, "It's hard to believe I'm 79." She feels more like "about 35 or 40." Asked about her 42-year romance and professional relationship with Jane Wagner, Tomlin said the two met in Tomlin's NYC hotel room in 1977 after Tomlin asked a mutual friend to arrange an introduction. Tomlin said she wanted to see if Wagner might be interested in collaborating on a stage play. When Wagner walked into the hotel room, sparks flew.


In coming out, Tomlin, had to deal with the reaction of my mother, a conservative Southern Baptist. Photo: Courtesy the artist  

"I just immediately fell in love with Jane. She was so smart and so beautiful. Jane had already won a Peabody Award for her television special 'J.T.,' and I was very impressed with her talent." said Tomlin. But Wagner "acted very cool, and I wasn't sure she was the least bit interested" in her.

Scheduled to perform in Chicago, Tomlin left town that night. Then Tomlin had a day off and went back to NYC to get acquainted with Wagner. The relationship took off "almost immediately." The cross-country relationship would require lots of plane travel, and "Jane took me by the hand, went to the airport, and pointed out that all the flights we watched taking off made it to their destination."

While people in the entertainment industry knew that Tomlin and Wagner were a couple, the women did not announce to the world that they were lesbians. If the climate for LGBTs had been different back then, "of course we would have come out" sooner than they did, said Tomlin. The couple married in 2014, after 38 years together.

Tomlin explained that she "had to deal with the reaction of my mother, a conservative Southern Baptist who had suffered a physical collapse after my younger brother came out." Tomlin's brother, four years younger, is an artist living in Nashville with his partner.

Over the years, Tomlin has worked on behalf of a number of causes, including the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), and Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS), which helps people with serious illness keep their companion animals. About a year ago, Tomlin began focusing her efforts on One Fair Wage, after Jane Fonda suggested she join her on a fundraising trip to Detroit, Tomlin's hometown. "Jane and I talk politics all the time on the set during rehearsal" for "Frankie and Johnny." "I said yes immediately. I know what it's like to live paycheck-to-paycheck and not have any savings."

Tomlin had a number of food service jobs herself, including delivering trays to hospital patients and waiting tables at a Howard Johnson's. Since the first minimum wage law was passed in 1938, Tomlin said, restaurant workers' wages went from zero to $2.13/hour at the federal level and $3.38 dollars/hour in Michigan, a raise of $3 over 80 years. "And no, this is not fake news," she said. Some 70% of tip workers who earn $3.38 per hour are women. "Jane and I began advocating for female worker's rights in 1980" in their comedy film "9 to 5." "Many of the issues back then still exist." In addition to the voter initiative on the ballot in Michigan in November, there are active campaigns in Washington, DC, New York and Massachusetts. "It looks like we are winning, but there is much work still to be done."

Along with original co-stars Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda, Tomlin has agreed to co-star in a movie sequel to "9 to 5," which could be ready in a year or two, "depending on when the script is finished." Tomlin and Wagner are also involved in several independent films now in development. And finally, "I'm really hoping Jane is going to write another Broadway play for me. I'd love to do another one."

Info: www.axs.com/events/359017/an-evening-of-classic-lily-tomlin-tickets Also: www.onefairwage.com.


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