In her long and fruitful career, there isn’t much Lily Tomlin hasn’t done. Over the last 50-plus years, the out entertainer has used her unique charm to make her mark in comedy, television, film, Broadway and, starting next month, Las Vegas.
Those attending either of her local shows, Oct. 23 and 24 in Newark and Atlantic City, N.J., respectively, are going to see what amounts to a greatest-hits performance featuring some of the most memorable and lovable characters she’s created.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Tomlin, 70, grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Detroit, and said she was inspired to be a performer by (and admitted to lifting routines from) some of the great women in entertainment in the mid-20th Century, such as Lucille Ball, Bea Lillie, Imogene Coca, Joan Davis and Jean Carroll, one of the first female stand-ups on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“Imogene Coca, I liked her at the time because she did accents and she would do mock ballet dances,” Tomlin said. “She even did a strip tease once that I took right off the TV and did on my back porch. She’d have on an overcoat and then she’s go behind a curtain and throw the overcoat out. And then she’d jump out and have on another overcoat. I thought that was hilarious.”
After high school, Tomlin studied medicine at Wayne State University, but her elective theater-arts courses compelled her to leave college and become a performer. Relocating to New York City in 1965, she soon built a following on the club circuit at venues like The Improvisation, Cafe Au Go Go and the Upstairs at the Downstairs.
Commercial success soon followed. Tomlin made her television debut in 1966 on “The Garry Moore Show” and then made several appearances on “The Merv Griffin Show.” Then sunny, glitzy California beckoned. In 1969, Tomlin joined the cast of the classic sketch-comedy show “Laugh-In” and immediately gained national attention, creating characters like Ernestine, the snarky telephone operator, and Edith Ann, the precocious 6-year-old who was always perched in an oversized rocking chair.
Tomlin will perform a number of her classic characters Oct. 23 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Oct. 24 at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa. She said it’s hard to pinpoint which of her characters draws the biggest audience reaction.
“At the outset, as soon as you become those characters from television or from ‘Laugh In’ like Ernestine and Edith, [they] are quite recognizable and ready to be received,” she said. “I would say they certainly get a big response. There’s no question. But there are lots of other pieces and characters where the content causes people to respond just as vocally and raucously. I do Madame Lupe — the oldest living beauty expert. Just doing her is really fun; embodying her is as much fun as anything I do on stage because she’s in very advanced years.”
After “Laugh-In,” Tomlin went on to star in six comedy television specials, which she co-wrote with her partner Jane Wagner. Those shows won her three Emmy Awards and a Writers Guild of America Award.
TV Variety shows are rare these days and audiences are lucky to see a comedian do anything other than attempt to act - or, worse, snag a reality show. Tomlin said she’s always envied performers like Bette Midler who could do it all.
“I always envied people who sang as well because they get airplay,” she said. Comedians don’t get airplay. They don’t offer [variety shows] very much anymore. It’s not an era of television specials. My first focus on versatility was to do as many culture types. That’s what interested me, to create characters that represented a certain segment of the culture. Over the years, I’ve done many, many, many characters. And within those, I would sing and dance. Not particularly well, but I would do it. I always acted. I’ve had fewer dramatic roles than I would like to have because people tend to drift toward what the culture identifies you as. I’m fairly versatile too except I’m not really a good singer or dancer. I think I could be trained to sing but I never did it.”
Tomlin would achieve to further success in the 1970s and ’80s starring in films like “Nashville,” “9 to 5,” “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” and “All of Me.” In recent years she has guest-starred on a number of television shows, including “Homicide,” “The X-Files,” “Murphy Brown,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Will & Grace,” often portraying characters that are more out-there and mischievous than any she has played before.
“I guess when you stop being the lead,” Tomlin replied when asked how she gets so many interesting roles on television. “I wasn’t on any TV series until I stopped being the lead. ‘Murphy’ was in the mid-1990s. I wasn’t on a series before then. I had broken into the movies in the early 1970s. I wasn’t that big of a movie star. I had some nice films I did with co-stars. I did ‘Murphy,’ then I did ‘West Wing.’ I’m doing six ‘Damages’ this year.”
The 1990s also saw Tomlin lend her talents to LGBT-themed films. She appeared in the 1993 adaptation of “And the Band Played On” and narrated the 1995 documentary “The Celluloid Closet.”
Tomlin said she believes the depictions of gay characters have gotten better over the years.
“I don’t know about movies, but television has certainly improved. There are many lead characters and they’re lovable. I don’t watch a lot of television. I heard there’s a gay couple on ‘Modern Life.’ Even major stars, it’s not beyond them to make a kind of offhanded homophobic remark, whether they get it or not. Maybe it’s a good sign that it’s accepted for the moment in a good way. There’s still a threshold of however high it might be now. It was much lower before. There’s still going to be a little separation to exert the manhood factor, even from the hippest people. I’m not saying everyone, but there are people that I like and watch that, every now and then, I see some little crappy thing leak out of their mouths.”
She added that despite those occasional and unfortunate backlashes, things are still far better for gays and lesbians inside and outside of the entertainment industry.
“I think there’s been tremendous strides made, with women too,” she said. “Before I would identify as a lesbian, I identified as a female. It seemed like the greater, more important fight. There’s much more consciousness in the culture. People become entertainers because they develop an antenna or sensitivity to the culture. Maybe not enough that would please me or you, but they do. They have to be an entertainer from someplace of their own empathy. Some people empathize more pervasively, deeply and widely. But still, to get ahead in the culture, you have to at least keep up with the culture. So they’re putting more of that out. And the fight ... I’ve marveled at what the gay community has done in the last 40 years since Stonewall. I was just talking to Bruce Vilanch the other night and comparing Martin Luther King Jr. to Obama in roughly the same 40 years. Even though it riles up more of the opposition, Obama’s election has caused all these more-radically prejudiced groups to rear their heads. I suppose it does the same thing to progress. When people are frightened and narrow-minded, when they see what looks like hordes of people they fear marching toward them, they’re going to make their last gasp. I’ve marveled at the gay movement coming up myself from the 1950s. I wasn’t even particularly fearful, but I was a product of my culture.”
Tomlin has been with Wagner since the early 1970s and explained that, while she never made an effort to hide her relationship or sexual orientation, the press wasn’t eager to put in the spotlight.
“People wouldn’t write about it, even into the 1970s,” she said. “When I was on the cover of Time in 1977, particularly in the business and with journalists, my relationship with Jane was no secret. Very often we’d be doing interviews together. She’s be sitting in the room. When I was interviewed with Time, we were always together because they’d come to your house and you’d go all kinds of places together. I almost got the Newsweek cover at the same time, which used to be a P.R. coup. I think Liza [Minnelli] did it once. At the last minute they found out that I was on Time and they quickly replaced the cover with Andrew Young or someone. But they still had a big story on me. The Time cover said I lived or shared a house with writer Jane Wagner. They said no more. Newsweek said I lived alone. No one had put any parameters on them. That’s how it was done in those days, especially if you were a legitimate performer or actor. Nobody was out to out you. They were much more discreet. Maybe in the ’80s, they started outing politicians. They became unbridled in reporting as much as they could.”
In the current era of over-exposed celebrities, it’s nice to know that talent trumps orientation.
Tomlin performs at 8 p.m. Oct. 23 at New Jersey Performing Arts Center, 1 Center St., Newark, N.J., and 8 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa Music Box, 1 Borgata Way, Atlantic City. For more information, visit www.lilytomlin.com, www.njpac.org or www.theborgata.com or call (609) 317-1000.