Tomlin, Lily (1939—)

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Tomlin, Lily (1939—)

Lily Tomlin, a gifted comedienne, writer, and actress, emerged on American television in the early 1970s as a featured performer on the highly innovative and successful comedy variety series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. She became noted for her gallery of memorable characters, such as Ernestine the telephone operator and the sassy, five-year-old Edith Ann, and for her ability to transform herself into many vivid personas without costume changes or make-up. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s she established herself as "America's reigning female comic genius" by appearing in a series of praised television specials, releasing a bestselling comedy album, and making a successful transition onto the movie screen. Known for her versatility, Tomlin occasionally appeared in more dramatic roles for some of Hollywood's most respected directors. In 1985, she scored her greatest artistic triumph by appearing in her one-woman Broadway smash The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which presented Tomlin's attempt to summarize a generation of social history through a series of character sketches. By the 1990s, Tomlin was displaying her talents on series television, film, animation, and commercials.

Mary Jean Tomlin, born on September 1, 1939, in Detroit, Michigan, had a great interest in observing people from childhood. Raised by a factory worker and housewife who had moved north from Paducah, Kentucky, in search of jobs during the Depression, Tomlin expressed an interest in theatre while attending Wayne State University. She combined her desire to perform comedy with talents for observation and mimicry in order to find her own style as a performer. Author Jeff Sorensen comments on Tomlin's comedic evolution when he writes: "Unlike other comics who stick with one successful persona, she was determined to play as many parts as she could dream up. Characters impressions were what interested Tomlin; she had no intention of standing up and telling topical jokes on subjects." Of her comic style she has said, "My comedy is actual life with the slightest twist of exaggeration. I construct compressed accuracy, a character essence that is as true as I can get it. I don't go for laughter. I never play for a joke per se. If the joke gets in the character's way, I take it out."

Tomlin began her career playing in Detroit coffeehouses while still in college, eventually making her way to New York. While honing her routines at a Manhattan nightclub and in several off-Broadway productions, Tomlin's career took off after she landed a part on Laugh-In in 1969. Tomlin became an instant celebrity during her tenure on Laugh-In, which lasted from 1969 to 1973. She endeared herself to audiences by inventing characters embodying both humor and intelligence. The most recognizable of her zany characters was Ernestine the telephone operator, a nasal and over-bearing woman who began her sketches with the catchphrase: "One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy, is this the party to whom I am speaking?" The wise-cracking Ernestine became so popular that AT&T offered Tomlin $500,000 to do a commercial, but the comedienne refused noting it would compromise the character's comedic integrity. One of Ernestine's most famous lines was "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the Phone Company." Tomlin's next most popular character of the early 1970s was Edith Ann, an uninhibited, lisping, five-year-old who sat in an oversized rocking chair as she discussed her life. Edith Ann would conclude her observations with her trademark expression "And that's the truth." Tomlin continued to create memorable characters after she left Laugh-In to star in a series of comedy specials. Her most famous creations include Trudy the bag lady, Sister Boogie-Woman, and Mrs. Beasley. The great popularity of these and other characters transformed Tomlin into a national comedic phenomenon.

The comedienne's versatility continued to expand as she moved beyond television. Her film debut came in 1975 when she was cast in Robert Altman's music industry epic Nashville. Tomlin, in a noncomedic role, played Linnea, a devoted mother and gospel singer who had an affair with a rock star. For this performance she received an Academy Award nomination. She followed this early screen success with such acclaimed films as The Late Show (1977), 9 to 5 (1980), All of Me (1984), and Big Business (1988). Her career suffered its greatest setback in 1978 with the release of Moment by Moment, which paired her with John Travolta in a romance. Critics lambasted the film, and audiences ignored it. Tomlin bounced back in 1985 with her Broadway triumph The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. She and writer Jane Wagner produced the acclaimed feminist look at the human condition that appealed to all audiences. Tomlin continued to express her versatility into the 1990s by appearing in such diverse roles as a TV executive on the sitcom Murphy Brown, the teacher/bus driver on the animated educational show The Magic School Bus, and through many film and TV guest appearances. Two of her best characterizations of this period were as an aging hippie in the film Flirting with Disaster and as a murderous Christmas spirit in a 1998 episode of The X-Files.

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

Anderson, Christopher. The New Book of People. New York, G. P.Putnam's Sons, 1986.

Brooks, Tim. The Complete Directory to Prime Time TV Stars. New York, Ballantine Books, 1987.

Grace, Arthur. Comedians. New York, Thomasson-Grant, 1991.

Sorensen, Jeff. Lily Tomlin: Woman of a Thousand Faces. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989.