Sometimes prophecies come true.
In her Detroit high school, Lily Tomlin was voted “most popular,” “most school spirit” and “most likely to succeed.” She wasn’t interested in the latter. She just wanted to be most popular. She’s both — and the former cheerleader still speaks fondly of her alma mater, so she’s really all three.
Forty-four years after heading to Hollywood, the woman who launched her cast of characters on “Laugh-In” is still laughing through life. She’s bringing that laughter to a Hancher show Saturday night (11/16) in the Riverside Casino Event Center. Her last Hancher appearance was in 2005. Don’t worry. She’s changed with the times, and so have her characters, including the iconic “one ringy-dingy” Ernestine.
“Since 2005, I’ve been using video a little bit — partly to make fun of myself and partly to do a little spin on a character and interact with the screen. I think the video adds a lot to the show, because it’s surprising and it’s good — it’s good video,” Tomlin, 74, says by phone from her home in Los Angeles. She shares her life there with playwright Jane Wagner, her partner of 42 years, and her cat, Murphy.
Tomlin says everything about her standup show is “just as updated as it can be.”
“Ernestine’s changed jobs many times since the divestiture,” she says. “Most recently, she works for a healthcare insurance corp, denying healthcare to everyone.
“I don’t know if there are any new characters since 2005,” she says, but she will delve into various topics as Lily. “I’ll try to talk about Riverside and I’ll talk about the planet, and I’ll talk about being a human being, and what that sort of entails — or what we imagine that entails.”
Lily Tomlin and her many characters
The much-lauded actress who won a 1986 Tony Award for her one-woman show, “The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” was intrigued to learn that Riverside has been deemed the future birthplace of Capt. James T. Kirk of “Star Trek” fame, garnering a mention in the 2009 blockbuster movie.
“Oh god, how great,” she exclaims. “That’s something to really crow about — or gun-ray about, or something.”
Tomlin has plenty to crow about, as well, with six Emmys, two Tonys, a 1971 Grammy for her comedy album, “This is a Recording,” the 2003 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and too many popular film and television credits to mention. Among them: recurring roles on television’s “The West Wing,” “Murphy Brown” (hence the cat’s name), “The Magic School Bus,” “Desperate Housewives,” “NCIS” and “Malibu Country,” as well as plum film roles in “9 to 5,” “Nashville,” “Tea with Mussolini” and “All of Me,” opposite Steve Martin.
But family is what she talked about the most in her recent Hoopla interview, with one charming, illuminating story after another, punctuated with lots of laughter.
Mary Jean Tomlin found her spotlight as a child, making up plays and hanging sheets for curtains behind her apartment house in inner city Detroit. She says her brother, Richard, who is three years younger, was naturally funny, while she always had to “invent” funny. They had many grand adventures together, from dressing outrageously like foreign film stars to drinking Geritol so they could stay up all night and tool around in the British MG-TD car she bought.
“We were too theatrical to be alive,” she says. Richard now lives in Nashville with his partner, Michael. Brother and sister never had a moment where they came out to each other. “It just happened over time,” she says. “We were always very close.” They still are.
That fancy little car was doubly special since Tomlin says her family was the only one in Detroit without a car — ironic since her father, Guy, worked in a noisy brass parts factory, making couplings for the burgeoning automobile industry. He would take her to “the bars and bookie joints,” put her on the bar when she was 2 or 3 and have her sing “Shoo-Fly Pie,” then buy her a 7Up. Her mother, Lillie Mae, whose name she adopted for her career, was a nurse’s aide at a hospital.
The wide range of people Tomlin met in all those circles, as well as in her parents’ home state of Kentucky, “absolutely” influenced the characters she has created over the years. One of those characters was instrumental in her decision to abandon her medical studies at Wayne State University in Detroit and move to New York in 1962 to carve out a completely different career.
After scoring a hit with a small improv role in a college production of “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” she was tapped to participate in a fraternity variety show. Because she’d never had a traditional stage role, she didn’t know what to do with the script they gave her. Besides that, she says the material wasn’t funny, so she just fell back on the monologues she’d been developing all her life, slaying audiences with her interpretation of a society matron in Grosse Pointe, the affluent Detroit-area neighborhood where the Fords lived.
Her mother’s maiden name was Ford, so the elder Tomlin was fascinated with all things Ford, including Charlotte Ford’s debutante coming out party that cost a small fortune in 1962. Eager to get a glimpse of the lavish set-up, Tomlin mother and daughter borrowed a car so old that the driver’s side door was held shut with a rope, then drove up to the Ford estate to see all the twinkling lights and canopies on the lawn.
Tomlin used all those observations to riff on societal differences, segregation and prejudices among the upper crust in an interview-type situation for the fraternity variety show.
“And when I would get up, I would spread my legs, like women often did to push themselves up off their knees in those days 50 years ago or more,” she says. “That was a huge laugh, to break the image of this pompous, pretentious woman.”
That upper-crust character was such a hit that Wayne State alumni working in the local media had her come on their radio and television shows. That gave her the courage she needed to plunge into showbiz, and she’s never looked back.
She has a couple of milestones she rues — one she fixed and one she couldn’t. She actually talked herself out of the role of Edna in “The Incredibles.” Director Brad Bird wanted to hire her for the animated film blockbuster, but he did the voicing so well, Tomlin said he should just do the role. Her life partner, Wagner, still hounds her about that, she says.
The family situation she did fix — which she says has never been reported — came after her mother died in 2005. Tomlin had her father’s body exhumed from a rundown cemetery in Paducah, Ky., where his remains had been interred for 30 years, and moved to a crypt next to her mother in Nashville. It was an emotionally difficult process, but one she’ll never regret.
“I couldn’t leave him there,” she says of the family plot that even had a spot for her. “There’s a headstone with my name on it, which I will never see again,” she declares.
Now her parents are resting side by side.
“My mother and dad are buried in a very nice nook in this mausoleum where a lot of country stars are buried — Tammy Wynette, Kitty Wells — I can’t even name them all,” she says, adding that she and her brother aren’t quite as religious as their Southern kin, so the whole burial situation is “outrageously funny to me, and sad and tragic and hopeful and everything else — and surreal.”
What isn’t surreal is her relationship with Wagner, the award-winning playwright who wrote the play and film versions of Tomlin’s hit, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.”
Now that California is among the states recognizing marriage equality, Tomlin says she and Wagner most likely will marry, too, in a ceremony “very low-key and under the radar.”
“I’ve always been kind of flippant about it,” she says. “When we couldn’t get married, I was saying that I was hoping the gay community could come up with something better than marriage, because to imitate heterosexuals could be a slippery slope.”