Renowned for her inventive comic characters, Lily Tomlin was born Mary Jean Tomlin on September 1, 1939. Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, she often accompanied her alcoholic father to bars, where she amused patrons by imitating their neighbors. Tomlin briefiy attended Wayne State University as a premed student but quit after her performance in a campus play convinced her that she had a fiair for comedy. For several years, she performed on local television and in coffeehouses. To further her career, Tomlin moved to New York City in 1965. Engagements at such clubs as the Improv and Cafe Au Go Go led to a job performing on the nationally televised Garry Moore Show (1958–67). She left after three shows over arguments with the writing staff about the quality of her material.
In 1970, Tomlin returned to television as a regular on the comedy revue Laugh-In (1968–73). She became instantly famous for her monologues delivered in the voices of various characters. The most popular were Ernestine, a surly telephone operator, and Edith Ann, a five-and-a-half-year old who was wise beyond her years. She showcased these and other characters on several successful comedy albums, including This Is a Recording (1971), for which she won a Grammy Award. While working her 1972 album And That’s the Truth, she began writing with playwright Jane Wagner, who has remained a frequent collaborator. A proud feminist, Tomlin refused to perform jokes on Laugh-In that she deemed sexist or racist. She also made news by walking off The Dick Cavett Show, a television talk show, when a fellow guest, actor Chad Everett, described his wife as his possession. In a 1981 interview, she replied to the question of how feminism had affected her career with, “If it hadn’t been for the women’s movement, people would call it my hobby.” After Laugh-In, Tomlin appeared in a series of television specials that challenged network censors. The most notorious was a one-hour variety show for CBS written by Tomlin and comic Richard Pryor. The network wanted to cut a sketch titled “Juke and Opal,” in which Pryor portrayed a methadone addict. When Tomlin threatened to sue, CBS put the sketch at the end of the special and added an incongruous laugh track to detract viewers from the disturbing material. The special won an Emmy for its writing.
By the mid-1970s, Tomlin was also appearing in films. She made an auspicious debut in a dramatic role in Nashville (1975), in which she subtly portrayed the emotions of a mother of two deaf children drawn into a brief affair with a womanizing pop star. The performance won her a Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. After garnering good reviews in the modern-day noir The Late Show (1977), her film career almost ended with the critical and popular disaster Moment by Moment (1978), a romance costarring John Travolta and written by Wagner. Tomlin scored a much-needed hit two years later with the light office comedy 9 to 5 (1980), which also featured JANE FONDA and DOLLY PARTON. Most of her subsequent film work has been in supporting roles in fairly insubstantial comedies, including Big Business (1988), The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), and Disney’s The Kid (2000). Tomlin has found much more success as a stage performer. After winning a special Tony Award for her show Appearing Nitely (1977), Tomlin received the best reviews of her career for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1986). This onewoman show, written and directed by Wagner, allowed Tomlin to create an array of unforgettable characters—from the bag lady Trudy to the miserable teen Agnes Angst to the caustic socialite Kate. Using virtually no props or scenery, she transformed from one to the next, employing just her voice and manner to indicate the character she had become. Tomlin and Wagner were hailed for daring to depict with affection characters who often bordered on the grotesque. Tomlin once explained, “I don’t necessarily admire them, but I do them all with love.”Winning a Tony for its original run, Tomlin revived Search on Broadway in November 2000. Reviewers marveled at the energy Tomlin, at 61, still brought to the demanding show. “It’s exhilarating,” Tomlin told USA Today, adding, “It’s such a joy to perform. . . . It’s fun to play, you know?”
Kaplan, James. “The Search for Lily Tomlin.” US Weekly. January 22, 2001, pp. 58–61.
Sorensen, Jeff. Lily Tomlin: Woman of a Thousand Faces. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Wagner, Jane. Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Nashville (1975). Paramount, DVD/VHS, 2000/1991.
9 to 5 (1980). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1995.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1992).
Wolfe Video, VHS, 1995.