Tomlin Revisits The Stage Of Alter-Egos

By Hap Erstein
Online: Oct 25, 1999

West Palm Beach, Fla. — Growing up in Detroit in the early 50s, precocious Mary Jean Tomlin loved to put on shows, imitating the female stars she would see on the television set her blue-collar family could barely afford. By the end of the 60s, she was a sensation on national television on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” adopting her mother’s first name and amusing the country with such acutely observed, comically exaggerated characters as telephone operator martinet Ernestine and a philosophical, smart-mouthed 5-year-old named Edith Ann.

Lily Tomlin graduated to Broadway in 1977 with a one-woman show called Appearing Nightly, then returned in 1985 with a cosmic monologue called “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” a time-tripping journey of comic consciousness-raising.

Now, Tomlin has begun touring with an expanded version of the show. Once more she inhabits a gallery of universal misfits, from bag lady Trudy who talks to extraterrestrials to a punk-haired teenage performance artist named Agnus Angst to Paul, a disco-era reject now torn between health food and cocaine, and many more, all unexpectedly intertwined.

It is no coincidence that Tomlin’s chosen route to stardom has been submerging her personality into her characters. After all, about the only thing Tomlin hasn’t done, onstage or off, is talk about herself. And that is exactly how she likes it.

“I haven’t been rigidly secretive, but I try to protect as much privacy as I can, rather than just being co-opted by the tabloids or by the press in general,” she says, pleasantly but firmly. “Somehow, you just have to protect yourself, in some way, from so much, uh, tabloidization, is all I can say. I’d rather do my work and express myself in my work and have people decide from that what they think of me.”

Tomlin has been venturing beyond her own characters in recent years, joining the ensemble of the CBS television series “Murphy Brown,” from 1996 through 1998, as the FYI team’s sadistic boss, Kay Carter Shepley. And this year, she gained attention in the Franco Zeffirelli World War II movie, “Tea With Mussolini,” playing a wisecracking lesbian archaeologist.

Both were lucrative enough that Tomlin, 60, feels able to treat herself to a return to the stage. “Yeah, it’s been a long time,” she concedes. “I thought it was good to let people see I can still do it.”

She knew she wanted to hit the road with a concert tour, she just didn’t know what to perform. Limbering up before student audiences at the University of Southern California, she got the best responses when she dipped back into the theatrically inventive Search, written for Tomlin by her longtime personal companion and professional collaborator, Jane Wagner.

“You have to make the point that Jane is truly the writer,” says Tomlin. “I really don’t have that capacity. I can understand it and intuit it and, thank God, I can perform it to some degree, but if you put me in a room with a thousand monkeys, it still wouldn’t spring forth.”

They met in 1971 when Tomlin saw a teleplay by Wagner about an inner-city kid and contacted her for help in conceiving a comedy album for Edith Ann. The album, “And That’s the Truth,” won a Grammy and they have been a writer-performer team ever since, through the highs of “Search” to the lows of “Moment by Moment,” a 1971 bomb with John Travolta that Wagner directed.

“Well, that was extremely tough, of course, although we didn’t know it at the time,” says Tomlin. “Whenever you’re making a movie, you never know you’re making something that’s going to fail miserably.”

At USC this spring, Tomlin and Wagner began reweaving the threads of “The Search,” looking for new epiphanies. “We started kind of experimenting with the characters, sort of where the end of the century has taken them and stuff like that,” explains Tomlin. “As I started working on it, it seemed richer than it ever was.”

Tomlin is well aware that, like a singer whose audience wants favorite hits rather than new, unfamiliar tunes, her Kravis audience may really want to hear what Ernestine, Edith Ann or perhaps lounge lizard Tommy Velour have to say as the millennium approaches. And such is Tomlin’s new ease with herself that she suggests she just might oblige such a request. “See, Lily’s a character in the play and always has been,” she says. “Lily’s just another character that Trudy time-travels to visit. So she could visit Lily at any time in her career,” Tomlin says with a raucous laugh.

In a theater, she can ignore the pressures to aim low and be crass, preferring humor that gives the audience credit for some intelligence. “That’s what always pleased me, that kind of exploration of the culture and culture types, how we relate to one another,” says Tomlin. “A kind of humor that’s more embracing, rather than divisive or ridiculing. It’s like when people would do mother-in-law jokes, I would rather do the mother-in-law.”

Other than the occasional benefit appearance, it has been more than a decade since Tomlin has been onstage, since she won a Tony award for her tour de force whirlwind performance in The Search, besting such heavyweight actresses as Jessica Tandy and Rosemary Harris. Lately, though, if you mentioned her name to twentysomethings, they’d be likely to identify her as “that new cast member on ‘Murphy Brown.”’

Tomlin had turned down other sitcom opportunities but said yes to “Murphy Brown” because “it was a show that was winding down. And I thought, well, it can give me a chance to see what it is to really do that kind of episodic TV. And truthfully, it was one of the highlights of my career, on a personal level.” Perhaps it was all those years doing solo shows, but she got a kick out of playing with others. “Nothing great happened for me critically or anything, but I loved being with those actors.”

She recalls that “Murphy Brown” completed production on a Friday and the next day she got a call from Zeffirelli to meet with him about a role in his next movie. But the role of Georgie in “Tea With Mussolini” was originally sketchy and tangential, so Tomlin almost turned it down. “I said, `But Franco, Ruth Gordon once said if you can tell a story without a character, then don’t accept that part.’ ”

The Italian filmmaker said, “Darling, I’ll write it for you, I’ll make it better. We’ll make up the part. You must come to Italy and spend the summer with us and we’ll make it happen.” With the occasional ad-lib from Tomlin, Zeffirelli built up the role and allowed Tomlin a memorable Tuscan adventure alongside such formidable co-stars as Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Cher.

“When it all started coming together, who could possibly have said no?” asks Tomlin. “I would have done it, I suppose, if it was a silent role.”

That doesn’t mean that performing alongside those revered British actresses wasn’t an emotional roller coaster. “Oh, intimidating, thrilling, exultant, terrifying, cry in your room, so afraid Maggie is going to reject you. With Maggie, it was like I was 14 years old again with an autograph book.”

Inside, she is still a kid, still Mary Jean Tomlin, even if she did turn 60 last month. Any philosophical thoughts on that milestone? “No, other than that it doesn’t seem possibly true,” she says soberly.

Ask her what is still left to achieve and she’ll say, “Well, I guess peace of mind.” In fact, the years have sanded Tomlin’s edges. She is far removed from the militantly political woman who refused to appear as Ernestine on “Laugh-In” opposite Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general, or to be photographed with her.

“I mean, what a little jerk I was,” says Tomlin. “I did the same thing with John Wayne,” the staunchly right-wing movie star. “I’d give anything now to have that picture with John Wayne.”

Today’s Tomlin is less driven, less hard on herself and others.

“I think there’s a lot to that, in terms of just being more accepting of what comes around. More forgiving, in a way, of yourself and everything else.”

And that’s the truth.

Source: New York Time Syndicate