Lily Tomlin has been hanging out in our living rooms off and on for about 50 years.
As the hilariously unhelpful telephone operator Earnestine, she first ringy-dinged into our awareness in 1969 on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” On the edgy, groundbreaking comedy show, Tomlin embodied other characters such as Edith Anne, a precocious 5½-year-old, and Mrs. Earbore, the tasteful lady, through 1973.
She has continued to perform on TV, stage and films, and now, at almost 80, Tomlin is squarely back in the TV universe in “Grace and Frankie” where she stars with her good friend Jane Fonda. The consistently Emmy-nominated Netflix series just wrapped its sixth season and has been “unofficially” slated for a seventh, Tomlin said.
She will bring 10 or 12 monologues and some video to Boone on July 20, as part of An Appalachian Summer Festival. The Fest starts June 29 with a concert by the Winston-Salem Symphony and Ben Folds, a Winston-Salem native. Tomlin will follow her show with a Q&A with the audience.
Although she is taking a break from touring this year, Tomlin and her writing and life partner, Jane Wagner, are making a swing through N.C., where Wagner has relatives. The two met in 1970 and were married in 2013. Tomlin spoke by phone for this interview from their home in Los Angeles.
It all started
She was born in Detroit, Mich., where her parents, a factory worker and a nurse’s aide, moved during the Great Depression. They were from Paducah, Ky.
“My dad was a tenant farmer on my mother’s father’s property before they moved to Michigan,” Tomlin said. “I spent every summer in Kentucky as a kid. I still have a load of cousins there and all their kids.”
As she described her colorful relatives, including Aunt Erma Dee and Uncle Walter, and talked about their qualities and mannerisms, it was clear where she got inspiration for her work. “They just lived in me,” she said.
Tomlin’s characters are all over the place, and while they are sometimes flaky, imperious or insensitive, they are never mean-spirited.
Tomlin and Meryl Streep played singing sisters in Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion” in 2006.
“I had so much fun with Meryl when we did Prairie Home Companion,” Tomlin said. “It was great fun. Her husband came from Wisconsin, and we were going to have Wisconsin accents.
“My aunt came up North and went to work in the factories. She had an accent that was inimitable. Uncle Walter owned a body shop, so Erma Dee always had a car. She would give my brother and I a ride home. We never had clothes for the weather; I was too vain, I would wear ballet slippers in the snow.
“But Erma Dee would always park two or three blocks from the house, and say, ‘I’m going to let youse out here, so I don’t have to make a U-turn.’ My brother and I use that line all the time, and it still cracks us up.”
Tomlin dropped out of college and went back and forth between Detroit and New York, before moving to East Greenwich Village in Manhattan in 1965. A course at the American Mime Theatre helped her get her Equity card, and she changed her name from Mary Jean to Lily; her mother’s name was Lillie Mae.
“The mime course was very strenuous, very physical, but I loved words too much to go that way,” she said.
She started working up monologues and doing stand-up at a time when there were very few female comics.
“If you were a singer you could get up there, but if you were a girl doing comedy, you had to have somebody vouch for you,” Tomlin said. “I had a couple of guys who were writing comedy. Louis St. Louis would call and say, ‘Come on, you can open for us.’”
She played legendary comedy clubs including The Improvisation, Cafe Au Go Go and the Upstairs at the Downstairs.
“I was very theatrical. I bought ’30s-style clothes,” she said. “I had a big fur jacket that looked just gruesome in the daylight but was glamorous on stage. I’d wear an evening dress and my fur, take a subway to the theater district and hire a limo to drive me to The Improv — you could hire a limo for 10 bucks — and tell the driver, ‘You’ve got to wait for me — I’ll be 20 minutes in the place.’”
She would then swan in to do her show, while the patrons watched through a big plate-glass window. “I was a sensation for a day or two,” she said, laughing.
Her gig on “Laugh-In” made her famous, and she followed it with several TV specials, including “Lily for President?”
In her first film role in 1975, Tomlin played a gospel singer who has an affair with Keith Carradine’s roguish country singer in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” It was an uncharacteristically dramatic role.
“I always thought I’d work in TV, and I thought I’d be in the movies,” she said. “Very few people crossed over from TV into movies, but I did all kind of things.
“I just always took it for granted, but it wasn’t that easy. If it wasn’t for Robert Altman, I don’t know if I would have gotten a movie role. He was on the edges of things. He was decisive and made bold choices.”
In 1980, Fonda tapped her for what became a huge hit movie, “9 to 5,” which also starred Dolly Parton. That was followed by the heartwarming comedy “All of Me,” in 1984 with Steve Martin, and a successful pairing with Bette Midler in 1988 in "Big Business."
A reboot of “9 to 5” is in the works, Tomlin said. “We’ve got a draft of the script by Rashida Jones and Pat Resnick who worked on the original.”
Her Broadway debut came in 1977 with a show called “Appearing Nitely,” written and directed by Wagner and featuring Tomlin in all the roles. In 1986-87, in another one-woman show on Broadway, also by Wagner, she played about 10 characters, including a bag lady, Trudy, who tied the whole thing together.
The latter show, “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe,” won six awards including a Tony for Best Actress in a Play for Tomlin. It was made into a 1991 film.
In addition to perpetual touring, Tomlin has performed in nearly 70 movies and TV shows, but despite her phenomenal success, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
“I was well-known from ‘Laugh-In,’ and could get booked into places like Marvelous Marv’s (a famous comedy club in Denver, Colo., in the ‘60s and ’70s). I could do Earnestine and Edith and the Cheerleader, but I had a lot of other stuff, and it wasn’t the kind of thing that ‘Laugh-In’ would take to,” she said. “I had a ’50s teenager, but she wasn’t a one-liner; she was a vignette.
“The audience didn’t know what to make of me. I was playing to silence. It would wear me down.”
But a friend in the business encouraged her: “You can’t stop doing what you’re doing. There’s nobody out there like you.”
“‘Grace and Frankie’ was a wonderful blessing for Jane (Fonda) and me both,” Tomlin said. “We wanted to do something about how older women were discounted — and then to get Martin (Sheen) and Sam (Waterston) to go in on it. They are great actors, and they are so much fun.
“The supporting cast is great — Brianna, especially, is having a moment right now. (June Diane Raphael plays Brianna Hanson, Fonda’s daughter.) And we have Marta Kauffman who was a lead writer on ‘Friends.’ Everybody is really great. I can’t believe six years have passed. We have a lot of fun.”
Grace and Frankie are two longtime but very different friends whose husbands come out of the closet, leave them and get married — to each other. Grace and Frankie are left to cope and to re-define themselves for their involuntary new lives.
In terms of the hi jinx that constantly ensue, it’s reminiscent of another female buddy comedy team — Lucille Ball (Lucy) and Vivian Vance (Ethel), of “I Love Lucy” from the 1950s.
Tomlin said that was a funny observation, because, “My assistant, Paul, marks everything by a Lucy episode. “
When not working, she and Wagner might “play a little tennis, go out to eat, or go to friend’s houses for dinner.”
She watches “Homeland,” “Ray Donovan” and “Gentleman Jack” on TV and, of course, “Big Little Lies,” which now includes her friend, Streep.
Tomlin loves to work and has no plans to stop. After all, there’s that “9 to 5” reboot to get made and who knows what new characters to plumb. Or, just maybe, it’s time for another “Lily for President?”