Lily Tomlin

Lily Tomlin
Lily Tomlin

Tomlin in September 2011
Birth name Mary Jean Tomlin
Born September 1, 1939 (1939-09-01) (age 72)
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Medium Stand-up, television, film, theatre
Nationality American
Years active 1965–present
Genres Observational comedy, improvisational comedy
Domestic partner(s) Jane Wagner (1971-present)

Mary Jean "Lily" Tomlin (born September 1, 1939) is an American actress, comedienne, writer, and producer. Tomlin has been a major force in American comedy since the late 1960's when she began a career as a stand up comedian and became a featured performer on television's Laugh-in. Her career has spanned television, comedy recordings, Broadway, and motion pictures, enjoying acclaimed success in each medium. She has won many awards including Tony Awards, Emmy Awards, and a Grammy Award and has also been nominated for an Academy Award. Tomlin's humor is often sharp and insightful in the traditions of standup comedians, but also frequently endearing, slightly wacky, and generally quite "family friendly" in the tradition of television comediennes such as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and Eve Arden.


Early life

Tomlin was born in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of Lillie Mae (née Ford), a housewife and nurse's aide, and Guy Tomlin, a factory worker.[1] Tomlin's parents were Southern Baptists who moved to Detroit from Paducah, Kentucky, during the Great Depression.[2][3][4] She is a 1957 graduate of Cass Technical High School. Tomlin attended Wayne State University, where her interest in the theater and performing arts began. After college, Tomlin began doing stand-up comedy in nightclubs in Detroit and later in New York City. Her first television appearance was on The Merv Griffin Show in 1965.

Stardom and classic Tomlin characters

In 1969, after a brief stint as a hostess on the ABC Television series Music Scene, Tomlin joined NBC's sketch comedy show Laugh-In. Tomlin was an instant success on the already established program, in which in addition to appearing in general sketches and delivering comic gags, she began appearing as regular characters she created that quickly became famous and went on to lives outside of the show in later recordings and television specials:

  • Ernestine was a nosey, condescending telephone operator who generally treated customers with little sympathy. Ernestine often snorted when she let loose a barbed response or heard something salacious; she also wore her hair in a 1940's hairstyle with a hair net, although the character was contemporary. Ernestine was almost always at her switchboard taking calls in the sketches. She occasionally called her boyfriend, Vito, a telephone repair man, or her pal Phoenicia, another operator.
Tomlin as Edith Ann
  • Edith Ann is a precocious five-and-a-half year old girl who waxes philosophical on everyday life, either about life as a kid or things for which she feels she has the answers although she is too young to fully understand. She often ends her monologues with "And that's the truth," punctuating it with a noisy raspberry. Edith Ann sits in an over-sized rocking chair (to make Tomlin seem child-sized) with her rag doll, Doris, and often talks of life at home with her battling parents and bullying older sister, Mary Jean (Lily Tomlin's actual first name). Edith Ann has an over-sized, playfully aggressive dog named Buster and a boyfriend named Junior Phillips, a possibly unrequited love. (No one but Edith and "Doris" are seen in any of the Edith Ann sketches.)
  • Mrs. Judith Beasley, also known as "The Tasteful Lady", is a somewhat prudish and prissy, conservatively dressed middle-aged apolitical woman who dispenses advice on gracious living and a life of elegance.
  • Susie the Sorority Girl is a blonde collegiate who could be the Tasteful Lady's daughter. Humorless and melodramatic, her biggest worries are the likes of who took her missing album by The Carpenters.
  • The Consumer Advocate Lady is a dour, austere woman who rigidly inspects and tests products for their alleged value. The Consumer Advocate Lady is something of a variation of Mrs. Beasley, much like Tomlin's "male vocalist" characters Tommy Velour and Pervis Hawkins.

Tomlin was also one of the first female comedians to break out in male drag with her characters Tommy Velour and Rick. Though drag had been performed in Hollywood for some time by men, Tomlin broke new ground by not only crossing gender stereotypes, but racial ones as well. In 1982, she premiered Pervis Hawkins, a black rhythm-and-blues soul singer (patterned after Luther Vandross), with a mustache, beard and close-cropped afro hairstyle, dressed in a three-piece suit. Tomlin used very little, if any, skin-darkening cosmetics as part of the character, instead depending on stage lighting to create the effect.

Ernestine and Edith Ann were by far Tomlin's most popular characters, and she occasionally performed as them in various television programs over the years.

AT&T offered Tomlin US$500,000 to play her character Ernestine in a commercial, but she declined, saying it would compromise her artistic integrity. In 1976 she appeared as Ernestine in a parody of a commercial on Saturday Night Live, in which she proclaimed, "We don't care, we don't have to...we're the phone company." The character later made a guest appearance at The Superhighway Summit at UCLA, January 11, 1994, interrupting a speech being given on the information superhighway by then-Vice President Al Gore. In 2003, she made two commercials as Ernestine for WebEx.

Tomlin brought Edith Ann to the forefront again in the 1990's with three animated prime-time television specials and also publishing Edith Ann's "autobiography" My Life (co-written by Jane Wagner) in 1995.


Tomlin released her first comedy album on Polydor Records in 1971, This Is A Recording, an album of Ernestine's run-ins with customers over the phone. The album hit #15 on the Billboard Hot 200, becoming (and remaining as of 2011) the highest-charting album ever by a solo comedienne.[5] She would earn a Grammy award that year for Best Comedy Recording.

Tomlin's second album, 1972's And That's The Truth, a collection of monologues as Edith Ann, was nearly as successful, peaking at #41 on the chart and earning another Grammy nomination. (Tomlin has two of the three top charting female comedy albums on Billboard, sandwiching a 1983 Joan Rivers release.)[5]

Tomlin's third comedy album, 1975's Modern Scream, a parody of movie magazines and celebrity interviews features her performing as multiple characters, including Ernestine, Edith Ann, Judith, and Suzie. Her 1977 release Lily Tomlin On Stage, was an adaptation of her Broadway show that year. Each of these albums earned Tomlin additional Grammy nominations.

Motion pictures

Tomlin in a 1970 publicity photo for Laugh-In

Tomlin made her dramatic debut in Robert Altman's Nashville, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she played Linnea Reese, a straitlaced, gospel-singing, mother of two deaf children who has an affair with a womanizing country singer (played by Keith Carradine). The Oscar that year went to Lee Grant for her role in Shampoo. A comedy-mystery, The Late Show, teaming Tomlin with Art Carney, was a critical success in 1977. One of the few widely panned projects of Tomlin's career, however, was 1978's Moment by Moment, directed and written by Wagner, which teamed Tomlin in a cross-generational older woman/younger man romance with John Travolta.

Tomlin soon had the greatest hit of her film career with 1980's Nine to Five in which she played a secretary named Violet Newstead who joins coworkers Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in seeking revenge on their monstrous boss, Franklin M. Hart, Jr., played by Dabney Coleman. The film was a huge success and one of the year's top grossing films. Tomlin then starred in the 1981 science fiction comedy The Incredible Shrinking Woman, a send-up of consumerism, and was the sickly heiress in the comedy All of Me opposite Steve Martin.

Tomlin and Bette Midler played two pairs of identical twins who were switched at birth in the 1989 comedy Big Business. Tomlin also played chain-smoking waitress Doreen Piggott in Altman's 1993 ensemble film Short Cuts, and, in two films by director David O. Russell; she appeared as a peacenik Raku artist in Flirting with Disaster and later, as an existential detective in I ♥ Huckabees. In 2007, a video recording surfaced showing Tomlin and Russell in a heated exchange over the shooting of a scene in Huckabees.

She collaborated again with director Robert Altman in what would prove to be his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, playing Rhonda Johnson, one half of a middle-aged Midwestern singing duo with Meryl Streep.


Tomlin was the first woman to appear solo in a Broadway show with her premiere of Appearing Nitely at the Biltmore theatre in April 1977. The same month, she made the cover of Time magazine with the headline "America's New Queen of Comedy". Her solo show then toured the country and was made into a record album titled On Stage. In 1985, Tomlin starred in another one-woman Broadway show The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her long-time life partner, writer/producer Jane Wagner. The show won her a Tony Award, and was made into a feature film in 1991. Tomlin revived the show for a run on Broadway in 2000 which then toured the country through mid-2002. In 1989, she won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre.

Return to television

Tomlin in 2008

Tomlin voiced Ms. Frizzle on the animated television series The Magic School Bus from 1994 to 1997. Also, in the 1990s, Tomlin appeared on the popular sitcom Murphy Brown as the title character's boss. In 2005 and 2006, she had a recurring role as Will Truman's boss Margot on Will & Grace. She appeared on the dramatic series The West Wing for four years (2002–2006) in the recurring role of presidential secretary Deborah Fiderer.

In the 2008-2009 fifth season of Desperate Housewives she has a recurring role as Roberta, the sister of Mrs. McCluskey (played by Kathryn Joosten, who coincidentally had played Tomlin's secretarial predecessor on The West Wing). During the 2008 Emmy Awards, Tomlin appeared as part of a tribute to the influential 1960s television series Laugh-In. Tomlin voiced Tammy in the 2005 The Simpsons episode, "The Last of the Red Hat Mamas". Tomlin provided a voice for the film Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, which was released in August 2009.[6]

Since its launch in 2008, Tomlin has been a contributor for, a website for women to talk culture, politics and gossip.

Tomlin and Kathryn Joosten have been in talks to star in a Desperate Housewives spin-off,[7] which was given the green light in May 2009.[8] Tomlin premiered her one-woman show Not Playing with a Full Deck at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in November 2009. It was her first appearance in that city, though she did tape an Emmy-winning TV special, a spoof of Las Vegas called Lily: Sold Out which premiered on CBS in January 1981. Tomlin guest-starred as Marilyn Tobin in the third season of Damages and in an episode of NCIS in the episode, "The Penelope Papers", playing Agent Timothy McGee's Sean Murray grandmother, Penelope Langton.

Personal life

Tomlin met her partner Jane Wagner in 1971. After watching an after school special written by Wagner, Tomlin invited her to Los Angeles to collaborate on a comedy album. Although Tomlin officially came out to the press in 2001, her sexual orientation has not really been a secret; in interviews she would often refer to Jane Wagner as her partner. As Tomlin herself stated in 2008, in an interview for Just Out magazine: "Everybody in the industry was certainly aware of my sexuality and of Jane... In interviews I always reference Jane and talk about Jane, but they don't always write about it."[9] She also had fights over jokes about her sexual orientation with late-night TV mogul Johnny Carson.

Tomlin has been involved in a number of feminist and gay-friendly film productions, and on her 1975 album Modern Scream she poked fun at straight actors who make a point of distancing themselves from their gay and lesbian characters — answering the pseudo-interview question, she replied: "How did it feel to play a heterosexual? I've seen these women all my life, I know how they walk, I know how they talk ..."[3]



Year Album Billboard Hot 200 Label
1971 This Is A Recording 15 Polydor Records
1972 And That's The Truth 41 Polydor Records
1975 Modern Scream  ? Polydor Records
1978 On Stage  ? Arista Records
2003 20th Century Masters: The Best oF Lily Tomlin Polydor Records


Tomlin has received numerous awards,[10][11] including: four primetime Emmys; a special 1977 Tony[12] when she was appearing in her one woman Broadway show, Appearing Nitely; a second Tony as Best Actress, two Drama Desk Awards[12] and an Outer Critics Circle Award for her one woman performance in Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe; a CableACE Award for Executive Producing the film adaptation of The Search; a Grammy Award for her comedy album, This is a Recording (a collection of Ernestine the Telephone Operator routines[13]) as well as nominations for her subsequent albums Modern Scream, And That's the Truth, and On Stage; and two Peabody Awards — the first for the ABC television special, Edith Ann’s Christmas: Just Say Noël and the second for narrating and executive producing the HBO film, The Celluloid Closet.

In 1992, she was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award.[14] Tomlin was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2003 she was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Also in 2003, she was recognized again by Women in Film with the Lucy Award in recognition of her excellence and innovation in her creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television.[15] In March 2009, Tomlin received Fenway Health's Dr. Susan M. Love Award for her contributions to women's health.[16]

Selected list

Tony Awards

Best Actress in a Play

Special Tony Award

  • 1977 Lifetime Achievement[12]
Grammy Awards

Best Comedy Album

  • 1972 This Is A Recording[13]
Emmy Awards

Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series

  • 1981 Lily: Sold Out (ABC)
Lily Tomlin, executive producer and star; Rocco Urbisci, producer; Jane Wagner, executive producer

Outstanding Writing - Comedy-Variety or Music Special

Rosalyn Drexler, Ann Elder, Karyl Geld, Robert Illes, Lorne Michaels, Richard Pryor, Jim Rusk, Herb Sargent, James R. Stein, Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, Rod Warren, George Yanok, Writers
Ann Elder, Christopher Guest, Lorne Michaels, Earl Pomerantz, Jim Rusk, Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, Rod Warren, George Yanok, Writers
  • 1978 The Paul Simon Special (NBC)
Chevy Chase, Tom Davis, Al Franken, Charles Grodin, Lorne Michaels, Paul Simon, Lily Tomlin, Alan Zweibel, Writers

Additionally, Lily (1973; above), in which she starred but did not produce, won for Outstanding Comedy-Variety, Variety Or Music Special, 1974 (Jerry McPhie, Herb Sargent, producers; Irene Pinn, executive producer)

Daytime Emmy Award
  • 1995 Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program

The Magic School Bus"


List of film appearances
Title Year Role Notes
Scarecrow in a Garden of Cucumbers 1972 Telephone Voice (uncredited)
Nashville 1975 Linnea Reese BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture - Female
Late Show, TheThe Late Show 1977 Margo Sperling Silver Bear for Best Actress at Berlin[18]
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role
Moment by Moment 1978 Trisha Rawlings
9 to 5 1980 Violet Newstead
Incredible Shrinking Woman, TheThe Incredible Shrinking Woman 1981 Pat Kramer/Judith Beasley Fantafestival Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Saturn Award for Best Actress
All of Me 1984 Edwina Cutwater Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Big Business 1988 Rose Ratliff/Rose Shelton
Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, TheThe Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe 1991 Trudy, et. al American Comedy Award for Funniest Actress in a Motion Picture (Leading Role)
Golden Needle Award for Best Actress
Nominated—Emmy Award for Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program
Nominated—Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special
Nominated—Independent Spirit Award for Best Lead Female
Shadows and Fog 1992 Prostitute
Player, TheThe Player 1992 Herself
Beverly Hillbillies, TheThe Beverly Hillbillies 1993 Miss Jane Hathaway
Short Cuts 1993 Doreen Piggot American Comedy Award for Funniest Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture (Leading Role)
Golden Globe Special Award for Best Ensemble Cast
Volpi Cup
Blue in the Face 1995 Waffle eater Nominated—American Comedy Award for Funniest Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture (Leading Role)
Getting Away with Murder 1996 Inga Mueller
Flirting with Disaster 1996 Mary Schlichting Nominated—Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female
Krippendorf's Tribe 1998 Prof. Ruth Allen
Tea with Mussolini 1999 Georgie Rockwell
Kid, TheThe Kid 2000 Janet
Orange County 2002 Charlotte Cobb
I Heart Huckabees 2004 Vivian Jaffe
Prairie Home Companion, AA Prairie Home Companion 2006 Rhonda Johnson Nominated—Gotham Award for Best Ensemble Cast
Nominated—Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture
Ant Bully, TheThe Ant Bully 2006 Mommo Voice
Last Guy on Earth 2006
Walker, TheThe Walker 2007 Abigail
Pink Panther 2, TheThe Pink Panther 2 2009 Mrs. Yvette Berenger
Ponyo 2009 Toki Voice
List of television appearances
Title Year Role Notes
Garry Moore Show, TheThe Garry Moore Show 1966–1967 Regular unknown episodes
Letters to Laugh-In 1969 Panelist
Music Scene 1969 Hostess, also did skits such as the "Eraser Freak"
Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In 1969–1973 Ernestine, the telephone operator; five-year-old Edith Ann; tasteful lady; other characters Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement by a Performer in Music or Variety (1972)
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film
Lily 1973 Herself Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program
Electric Company, TheThe Electric Company 1973
Lily 1974 Herself Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program
Lily Tomlin Special, TheThe Lily Tomlin Special 1975 Herself Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series
Saturday Night Live 1976–1977 Host/Ernestine/Various
Paul Simon Special, TheThe Paul Simon Special 1977 Herself Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program
Sesame Street 1979 Edith Ann
Lily: Sold Out 1981 Herself Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program
Pryor's Place 1984
And the Band Played On 1993 Dr. Selma Dritz Nominated—CableACE Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Movie or Miniseries
Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress – Miniseries or a Movie
Frasier 1994 Rita (voice)
Magic School Bus, TheThe Magic School Bus 1994–1997 Ms. Frizzle Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer In An Animated Program (1995)
Nominated — Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer In An Animated Program (1996, 1997, 1998)
Homicide: Life on the Streets 1996 Rose Halligan Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress – Drama Series
Murphy Brown 1996–1998 Kay Carter-Shepley
X-Files, TheThe X-Files 1998 Lydia
Bette 2000 Herself
West Wing, TheThe West Wing 2002–2006 Deborah Fiderer Nominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series (2003, 2005)
Nominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series (2003)
Simpsons, TheThe Simpsons 2005 Tammy Appeared on the episode "The Last of the Red Hat Mamas"
Will & Grace 2005–2006 Margot
12 Miles of Bad Road 2008 Amelia Shakespeare
Desperate Housewives 2008–2009 Roberta Simmons
Damages 2010 Marilyn Tobin Nominated—Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress – Drama Series
RuPaul's Drag Race 3 2011 Herself Episode 3, guest judge
Circle, TheThe Circle 2011 Herself Guest co-host
A Quiet Word With ... 2011 Herself Season 1, episode 6, guest[19]
NCIS 2011 Penelope Langston


  1. ^ "LilyTomlin>Biography". Retrieved March 6, 2009. 
  2. ^ Fischbach, Bob (October 1, 2008). "Stage holds the magic for Tomlin". Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 
  3. ^ a b Duralde, Alonso (March 15, 2005), "Thoroughly modern Lily", The Advocate, 
  4. ^ Kelly, Kevin (1985-08-11). "Lily Tomlin Mysterious Modest and Multifaceted". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 
  5. ^ a b "Chart beat: Katy Perry, Kathy Griffin, Miley Cyrus".
  6. ^ "Exclusive News on Ponyo’s English Voice Talent Cast". Ghibli World. November 26, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-30. 
  7. ^ "Wives" Spins, New York Post, May 12, 2009
  8. ^ Galloping "Girls", New York Post, May 18, 2009
  9. ^ Radosta, Jim. "Lily Tomlin Interview."[dead link] Just Out, May 30, 2008.
  10. ^ "The Envelope: Entertainment Awards Database" search for Lily Tomlin. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 25, 2011.
  11. ^ "Lily Tomlin Awards & Nominations".
  12. ^ a b c d "Lily Tomlin Awards & Nominations". IBDB.
  13. ^ a b "Grammy Past Winners Search" for Comedy Album This is a Recording. Retrieved September 25, 2011.
  14. ^ "Past Recipients: Crystal Award". Women In Film. Retrieved May 10, 2011. 
  15. ^ "Past Recipients".
  16. ^ "Women's Dinner Party 2009" (Press release). Fenway Health. March 5, 2009. Retrieved 2010-05-24. 
  17. ^ Official Emmy Awards site
  18. ^ "Berlinale 1977: Prize Winners". Retrieved 2010-07-25. 
  19. ^ "A Quiet Word With Carrie Fisher". A Quiet Word. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 1 August 2011. 

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