Lily Tomlin

Lily Tomlin Headshot

Actress • Comedian • Writer

Birth Name: Mary Jean Tomlin

Birth Date: September 1, 1939

Age: 84 years old

Birth Place: Detroit, Michigan

With an illustrious career that spans 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 nasal-voiced 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). Tomlin remained capable of turning in acclaimed and often unexpected performances more than five decades into her career, and was rewarded with a mid-2010s resurgence that included a critically-acclaimed situation comedy and her first starring role in over a quarter-century in Paul Weitz's "Grandma" (2015).

Mary Jean Tomlin was born on Sept. 1, 1939. Tomlin's mother was a housewife, her father an auto factory employee who had moved 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 won out. She left school and began performing stand-up comedy, first in her hometown. 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 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 1972, 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 more TV 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 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), a commercial and critical bomb that became an unintentional camp classic. However, with Tomlin's fame on the rise, she continued to take on more movie roles, which soon made her one of the most popular comic actresses of her era.

"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." Tomlin re-teamed with Martin for a feature comedy "All of Me" (1984), in which she acted as Martin's comic foil as a wealthy, sickly heiress.

The next year, Tomlin and 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. (A filmed version was released in 1991.)

Tomlin and another iconic comic performer, Bette Midler, teamed up in the feature film comedy "Big Business" (1988), in which both actresses played a set of identical twins. Tomlin went on to appear in Woody Allen's "Shadows and Fog" (1992), and, in another seminal dramatic role, in Robert Altman's sprawling drama of vignettes "Short Cuts" (1993). 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. 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 helped land her creator a Peabody Award for a 1996 holiday special, entitled "Edith Ann's Christmas: Just Say N l." 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).

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, long an open secret among Tomlin's fans, had no discernable effect on her career. (Tomlin and Wagner married on December 31, 2013, in New York City.)

Tomlin 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. 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 "Huckabees," a video of a major on-set verbal fight between Tomlin and mercurial director Russell would hit the internet.) By 2006, Tomlin's slate was a strong reflection of the full range of gifts she had nurtured. She appeared in Robert Altman's final film, "A Prairie Home Companion" (2006), singing and dancing in between comedic barbs alongside Meryl Streep, as one half of the Johnson Sisters. Tomlin next put her penchant for voices on display as the quirky grandmother Mommo of the animated "The Ant Bully" (2006). She kept on filming for an eclectic mix of directing talent, tackling writer-director Paul Schrader's drama "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- 2012), 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); Tomlin also co-starred in Reba McEntire's sitcom "Malibu Country" (ABC 2012-13).

After reteaming with Steve Martin for the comedy sequel "The Pink Panther 2" (2009), Tomlin co-starred as Tina Fey's mother in the college-set romantic-comedy "Admission" (2013). She reunited with that film's director, Paul Weitz, for the critically acclaimed comedy-drama "Grandma" (2015), in which Tomlin played an aging lesbian coming to terms with her partner's death, who embarks on a road trip with her pregnant teen granddaughter; it was her first leading role in a feature film since "Big Business."

The same year, Tomlin executive-produced and co-starred opposite Jane Fonda in the situation comedy "Grace and Frankie" (Netflix 2015- ), for which she was nominated for another Emmy.

Credits

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News aboutLily Tomlin

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