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With an illustrious career that spanned decades on stage and screen beginning in the 1960s, academic-minded actress-comedian Lily Tomlin found a penchant for mimicry and social commentary that wove its way into the fabric of American culture. After making her debut on "The Garry Moore Show" (CBS, 1950-1967), Tomlin made a splash on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" (NBC, 1968-1973), particularly as the nasally telephone operator Ernestine. She went on to become a Grammy-winning recording artist for her comedy album, This Is a Recording (1972), while also starring in and co-writing three primetime television specials, each of which won Emmy Awards. Tomlin made her feature film debut as a troubled gospel singer in Robert Altman's landmark "Nashville" (1975) before appearing on Broadway for the first time in her one-woman show, "Appearing Nightly" (1977), which she co-wrote with life partner Jane Wagner. She skyrocketed to superstardom opposite Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in the hit comedy "9 to 5" (1980), while her one-woman show, "The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe" (1986), earned Tomlin a Tony Award. On television, she delivered an acclaimed performance in "And the Band Played On" (HBO,...
With an illustrious career that spanned decades on stage and screen beginning in the 1960s, academic-minded actress-comedian Lily Tomlin found a penchant for mimicry and social commentary that wove its way into the fabric of American culture. After making her debut on "The Garry Moore Show" (CBS, 1950-1967), Tomlin made a splash on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" (NBC, 1968-1973), particularly as the nasally telephone operator Ernestine. She went on to become a Grammy-winning recording artist for her comedy album, This Is a Recording (1972), while also starring in and co-writing three primetime television specials, each of which won Emmy Awards. Tomlin made her feature film debut as a troubled gospel singer in Robert Altman's landmark "Nashville" (1975) before appearing on Broadway for the first time in her one-woman show, "Appearing Nightly" (1977), which she co-wrote with life partner Jane Wagner. She skyrocketed to superstardom opposite Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in the hit comedy "9 to 5" (1980), while her one-woman show, "The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe" (1986), earned Tomlin a Tony Award. On television, she delivered an acclaimed performance in "And the Band Played On" (HBO, 1993), while giving inspired performances in "Short Cuts" (1993) and "Flirting with Disaster" (1996). Though she struggled in later years to rediscover her big screen success from the early 1980s, Tomlin remained capable of turning in an acclaimed and often unexpected performance that reminded everyone of her immense talent.
Mary Jean Tomlin was born on Sept. 1, 1939. Tomlin's mother was a Tupperware-loving housewife, her father an auto factory employee who had immigrated the family to Detroit from the town of Paducah, KY, where Tomlin spent her summers on a farm. Tomlin was the funny ringleader, pulling in friends and neighborhood kids as part of her makeshift shows, which she performed around the apartment complex where the family lived. Her upbringing was consistently marked by mashed-up blends of blue-collar virtues and well-to-do refinement, the latter segment of the population often inspiring the diverse sensibilities of her characters. Tomlin's interest in creating voices was solidified by a schoolteacher with a curious habit of using voices in her lectures. As Tomlin got older, her interests broadened and, nurtured by a neighborhood woman with a love of botany, Tomlin found a deep fascination with the sciences. In high school as Cass Technical High, the ebullient Tomlin was both a science whiz and a member of the cheerleading squad.
She had intended to put her academic side to use as a student at Detroit's Wayne State University, but after two years on the pre-med path, Tomlin's desire to perform and elicit laughter won out. She left school and began performing stand-up comedy, first in her hometown, then in 1962, she headed to New York City becoming a fixture in the Greenwich Village clubs along with future fellow comic icon Joan Rivers. Tomlin's profile received a huge boost when she appeared on "The Merv Griffin Show" in 1965. In 1966, Tomlin made her series debut on "The Garry Moore Show" (1958-1967) and played various characters. For her audition, she adopted the persona of a would-be beauty contestant in ancient Rome. In 1969, "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" producer George Schlatter, who had seen one of her stand-up sets, invited Tomlin to join the show. She was asked twice, but was not sure at first, opting to go to the short-lived, seemingly more relevant route that was the "The Music Scene" (1969). After the cancellation of "The Music Scene," she joined "Laugh-In" in the middle of its 1969-1970 season. Tomlin made a big splash, introducing television audiences to the classic character of Ernestine, the nasal-voiced, sassy telephone operator and the rascally little girl Edith Ann.
Tomlin released a comedy album of her live bits in 1971, This Is a Recording, which netted her a Grammy Award. Tomlin stayed with "Laugh-In" until 1973, and won a 1972 Golden Globe Award for her work on the series. In March of 1973, Tomlin and a staff that included writing partner Jane Wagner came out with the first of her specials, "The Lily Tomlin Show," followed by another with "Lily" in November. The specials featured Tomlin in top form as she showcased various signature characters and added some new ones. The first "Lily" won Tomlin and her writing staff Emmys in 1974. The year 1975 was a banner one for Tomlin. Aside from the two specials, "Lily" in February and "The Lily Tomlin Special" in July, the latter of which earned her two more Emmy nominations, Tomlin started things out in January with a role in film director Robert Altman's drama "Nashville" (1975). As the housewife of two, Linnea Reese, Tomlin showed her dramatic side. It was a turning point for her career as an actress and gave Hollywood a new sense of what she was capable of, especially when she received an Academy Award nomination in 1976 for the role. It would not be a trophy-less year, however, as Tomlin won an Emmy Award for the ABC special "Lily Tomlin" (1976).
In 1977, Tomlin and Wagner collaborated on a Broadway show entitled "Appearing Nitely," which Wagner wrote and directed in 1977. The show netted Tomlin a Special Award prize at the 1977 Tonys. Tomlin also appeared alongside host Steve Martin on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" (1975- ), on which she had previously served as host in its first season. She and Wagner then pulled in actor John Travolta for Wagner's romantic drama "Moment by Moment" (1978), which bombed famously. With Tomlin's fame on the rise, she continued to take on more movie roles. Her second signature film, "9 to 5" (1980) saw her playing Violet, one of three frustrated corporate women who kidnap their misogynist boss, followed by the 1981 comedy "The Incredible Shrinking Woman."
In 1984, Tomlin re-teamed with Martin for a feature comedy, in which she restrained herself to act as the comic foil, the wealthy, sickly Edwina Cutwater of "All of Me." The next year, Tomlin and Jane Wagner found their biggest and most vital success with Tomlin's one-woman show, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." In the show, self-financed by Tomlin and Wagner and written and directed by Wagner, Tomlin affected a large number of characters, many of whom derived from her past sketches, in varying states of life. Chiefly among them was the narrator and loopy bag lady Trudy, who served as a conduit for curious aliens. The show, a wise and funny take on humanity, struck the right chord with Broadway audiences, winning Tomlin a Tony Award for her performance in 1986.
Tomlin and another iconic performer, Better Midler tried their hand at a team-up in 1988, with the feature film comedy "Big Business." Tomlin's was a role originally earmarked for former "Laugh-In" veteran Goldie Hawn. The success of "The Search " and its wealth of material was too good to leave to history, of course, and was revisited in 1991, when a shortened version was filmed as a movie. Tomlin went on the next year to appear in Woody Allen's "Shadows and Fog" (1992), playing a hooker, and, in another seminal dramatic role, in Robert Altman's sprawling drama of vignettes "Short Cuts" 1993), playing a woman unaware of her role in a fatal traffic mishap. It was her third time with Altman, following her cameo as herself in "The Player" (1992). She followed that up with another dramatic role, putting her pre-med days to use as a doctor in HBO's September adaptation of "And the Band Played On" (1993), a depiction of the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
Tomlin revisited another old character in 1994, summoning the dormant voice of Edith Ann in an ABC animated special, "Edith Ann - A Few Pieces of the Puzzle," one of several Edith Ann projects she would collaborate on for the network in the mid '90s. That year, her voice could also be heard on a September episode of NBC's "Frasier" (1993-2004). Tomlin looked to stay within the family-friendly realm, playing Mrs. Valerie Frizzle, the host of the PBS show, "The Magic Schoolbus" (1994-98). Edith Ann even helped land her creator a Peabody Award for a 1996 holiday special, entitled "Edith Ann's Christmas: Just Say N l."
With a habit of finding memorable characters, Tomlin took to the burgeoning '90s independent cinema scene with a role opposite Alan Alda and Ben Stiller in David O. Russell's "Flirting with Disaster" (1996), a modern classic with tragicomic outcomes. As the not-quite-former hippie mother, Mary Schlichting, Tomlin's character effectively vexed Stiller to the point of comic lunacy. The same year, she took on the regular role of Kay Carter-Shepley on CBS' long-running newsroom comedy, "Murphy Brown" (1988-1998), staying with the series until its finale. By the time she was graced with a 1996 Emmy nomination for an appearance that year on "Homicide: Life on the Street" (1993 99), Tomlin had received a staggering six wins and 15 nominations total.
In 2000, Tomlin revived "The Search " once more for the Broadway stages, which she and Wagner then took across the United States, including San Francisco, where the play ran for a good half a year. By then, Tomlin, who had long valued her well-guarded privacy, had publicly revealed that not only had Wagner been her head writer for the past three decades, she was also her romantic partner as well. Tomlin, who had alluded to the relationship over the years, had previously shepherded the HBO Peabody-winning documentary "The Celluloid Closet" (1995), which looked closely at the history of homosexuality in Hollywood and was a firm, longtime supporter of gay rights. The revelation seemed to have little effect on a career dominated by multitudes of professional accomplishments. The Tomlin fans simply kept coming back.
With her formidable dramatic weight, Tomlin had found another long-running TV home on NBC's presidential drama, "The West Wing" (1999-2006), recurring on the series from 2002 until its final season. Showing no signs of fatigue, Tomlin was very much in demand. Small parts in studio films like the Bruce Willis vehicle, "The Kid" (2000), the college satire "Orange County" (2002), and a re-teaming with David O. Russell for the existential art house comedy "I Heart Huckabees" (2004), provided a versatile string of roles within an industry that often relegated its older performers to thankless roles. A few years after the release of the modest hit film, Tomlin's verbal sparrings with mercurial director Russell would hit the internet, creating a major buzz within the industry.
By 2006, Tomlin's slate was a strong reflection of the full range of gifts she had nurtured. In June, she appeared in Robert Altman's final film, "A Prairie Home Companion," singing and dancing in between comedic barbs alongside Meryl Streep, as one half of the Johnson Sisters. A month later, Tomlin put her penchant for voices on display as the quirky grandmother Mommo of July's animated "The Ant Bully." She kept on filming throughout the year for a curious mix of directing talent, tackling writer-director Paul Schrader's "The Walker" (2007), sketch comedy master David Wain's "Seniors" (2007) and then a trip into the demented day of "Barry Munday" (2007). Following a recurring role as Roberta, the sister of Mrs. McCluskey (Kathryn Joosten) on "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2004-2012), Tomlin joined the cast of "Damages" (FX, 2007- ), playing the desperate matriarch of a wealthy family whose husband (Len Cariou) is convicted of operating a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. Her performance as a woman willing to do anything to protect her wealth earned Tomlin an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. In 2011, Tomlin was a guest star on the popular military procedural "NCIS" (CBS, 2003- ) and had a hilarious turn as the mother of washed-up baseball pitcher Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) in an episode of "Eastbound & Down" (HBO, 2009-2012).
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CAST: (feature film)
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"No one practices more than I do. In the beginning I was forced to make up stuff, but it was mediocre. As soon as I met Jane [Wagner], everthing took a leap, because she's far superior to me... in verbal acuity. I'll spend the rest of my life explaining that Jane is the writer and I don't write. We both have the same sensibility; she's just a lot smarter. She combines everything, it's funny, satiric, passionate, emotional, and it's poetic."---Lily Tomlin to DETAILS magazine, October 1991.
Tomlin came up with an unusual sales pitch for direct-mail and magazine ads pushing a collection of five of her videotapes; "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," "Appearing Nightly," "Lily Sold Out," "Lily for President," and "Ernestine: Peak Experience," for a total of $120. Each customer gets a lock of Tomlin's hair ("a valuable hairloom").---From ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, January 8, 1993.
Tomlin received the Jack Benny Award for Excellence in Entertainment from UCLA.
She was named "Star of the Year" by the Motion Picture Bookers (1991)
Reportedly, Tomlin reneged on a promise to Armistead Maupin to publicly 'come out' if he agreed to work on "The Celluloid Closet". Maupin (best known for "Tales of the City") wrote the narration for the documentary which Tomlin recited.
"My feeling was the narrator should be an openly gay person or a sympathetic straight person. Instead, I have to endure the cruel irony of a film called "The Celluloid Closet" narrated by a closeted person!"--Maupin quoted by Michael Musto, VILLAGE VOICE, January 30, 1996. Also reported in NEW YORK POST, January 25, 1996.
Tomlin "Came out" as a lesbian in an interview stating: "I don't like to talk about my private life in any detail, but I don't disavow my private life."
"I also don't want to become someone's poster girl, either. And, you know, that's been somewhat difficult in terms of the movement. I've tried to be as simple and direct as I can without being exploited or tabloidized."---Tomlin in Us Weekly, January 22, 2001.
"There's a certain limit to what you can achieve without having any real credentials," explains Tomlin. "If you represent yourself as someone who knows everything, then you're going to end up in a farce."---Tomlin to AARP magazine, January 21, 2003.
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