The ‘Search’ Resumes The incomparable Lily Tomlin, older but as wise as ever, returns to where it all started with her most celebrated 1-woman show
The News Tribune; Tacoma, Wash.; Sep 5, 2000; Jen Graves;

Fifteen years ago, the award-winning actress Lily Tomlin took the stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre to introduce to Seattle the dozen characters in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.”

It was the characters’ first-ever outing together. They got along so well that Trudy, Agnus Angst and the crew traveled to New York, where they became national icons and theater heroes on Broadway.

After that, they retired to their homes. Though lookalikes come out occasionally – university students and professional actors perform the popular one-woman piece either as an ensemble or a solo show – the originals have long been hermits.

But Lily has persuaded the crew to tour again, deja vu-like: They’ll stop in Seattle and, when they leave, head for Broadway.

Starting Wednesday, Tomlin and director/writer Jane Wagner will remount “The Search” at Seattle Rep.

In a phone conversation a few weeks ago, the 61-year-old Tomlin said she had planned to do a stand-up concert tour this year. But she changed her mind after she performed “The Search” at the University of Southern California last summer and students were enthralled.

“Before, people were making their way through that time (the ’70s and early ’80s), and now the young people look back and … most of the university women were kind of amazed,” Tomlin said. “I think they take a lot for granted in terms of their own opportunities, so it just filled in a few gaps for them.

“At the same time, it’s still about idealism and thinking you’re going to change the world, and as time passes, how the world erodes your determination. I worry that once you’ve tried to change the world, you start to realize it’s easier to change your mind.”

Her conversational one-liners reveal that Lily, born Mary Jean in Detroit to a couple from the Kentucky hill country, could have grown up to be a successful, intelligent stand-up comic.

That would be an accomplishment for most, but not for a talent this size. Tomlin has built a remarkably respectable and long- spanning career on her mystical knack for inhabiting characters, like Ernestine the tyrannical telephone operator and the devilish 5-year- old Edith Ann from her 1969-72 stint on TV’s “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh- In.”

She speaks of them in the third-person and asked Time magazine in 1977, the year she won her first Tony Award for “Appearing Nitely”: “Do you think my characters are not real? They’re out there somewhere. I just imitate them.”

(A few years before that, AT&T offered Tomlin $500,000 to turn Ernestine into a favorable spokeswoman for the phone company, Time reported. Tomlin told AT&T that Ernestine, offended, turned it down.)

Wagner, Tomlin’s longtime collaborator and partner, told Time in the same cover story that she’d never seen Tomlin rehearse her creations in front of a mirror. “She just gets up and does them,” Wagner said. “It’s a comedic possession, but maybe demonic possession is just around the bend.”

Tomlin got an Oscar nomination in 1975 for her role as Linnea, mother of two deaf children, in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” She also was in his “Short Cuts” (1993). Almost all of her movie roles are memorable: Think “9 to 5” (1980); “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (for which Wagner wrote the screenplay in 1981); “All of Me” (1984); “Flirting With Disaster” (1996); “Tea With Mussolini” (1999); and “The Kid,” now out, with Bruce Willis.

She has won six Emmy Awards over the years. Most recently, she played Murphy Brown’s boss on the hit CBS series; was nominated for an Emmy for her appearance on the NBC drama “Homicide”; and continues to do the voice for Ms. Frizzle on the children’s animated series “The Magic School Bus.”

Tomlin has two Peabody Awards: for the ABC special “Edith Ann’s Christmas: Just Say Noel” and for narrating and producing the HBO film “The Celluloid Closet.”

She even won a Grammy for her comedy album “This is a Recording.”

Tomlin and Wagner turned “The Search” into a movie in 1991, five years after her stage performance earned Tomlin the Tony Award for Best Actress for that show. When it premiered on Broadway, the New York Times called it “the most genuinely subversive comedy to be produced on Broadway in years.” The book was on the Times’ best- seller list for months.

Talking to Tomlin about “The Search” is just what you’d expect. Her friendly, forward speech heads off on inspired tangents and, occasionally, her brassy voice makes way for the shine of other personalities.

She’s excited about this run, because Seattle has special significance. The Rep was “The Search’s” first full-performance venue as well as the place she last did “Appearing Nitely.”

Peter Donnelly, who was producing director at Seattle Rep and is now president of Corporate Council for the Arts, fondly remembers working with Tomlin, whom he called “a perfectionist.”

“She’s come up the hard way,” Donnelly said. “Nothing has been given to her. She’s a real trouper. I think she’d hate to hear that word, but she’s real accessible.”

Tomlin said she’s the same now as she was then.

“This is meaningful in that truly, I’ve changed almost not at all,” Tomlin said. “I know I’m better as an actress and performer, but physically and in terms of time I feel I’m maybe even younger. … I don’t mind my age, it’s just other people’s perceptions.”

She turned 61 Friday, and Tomlin isn’t sure she wants to see her age in print. She advanced and retreated on her discomfort and, eventually, spat out the number. It doesn’t matter, anyway, she said.

“I can remember Mary Steenburgen named one of her children Lily when she saw me in ‘Appearing Nitely’ in 1977,” Tomlin said. “I remember reading a piece in the paper. She says, ‘This is a performer in her prime.’ Then, when I do ‘The Search’ 15 years ago, they say, ‘This is a performer in her prime.’ I dare say I hope I get one of those again.”

Tomlin didn’t intend to become a star. She acted in plays at school, but only took it on as a career after dropping out of Detroit’s Wayne State University, where she was a pre-med student.

“I mostly just wanted to create material and do what I did, and fame is basically relative, anyway,” she said. “When I used to be on the (Merv) Griffin Show in the ’60s, I would do a monologue and … some truck driver cabbie would yell at me, ‘Hey, I saw you on Griffin last night! You were really funny!’ and you might as well be on the cover of Time.” (She would know.)

“If I’d been in Detroit and had a coffeehouse, I would have been just as thrilled.”

But Tomlin didn’t stay home long. She went to New York in 1966 and auditioned for a TV variety show by tap dancing in bare feet with the taps taped to the bottoms. She got the show, but it failed. Three years later, she was doing Ernestine on “Laugh-In,” and she was launched.

By the time Tomlin and Wagner staged the “The Search,” Tomlin’s adamantly progressive politics were well-known. She did something on “Laugh-In” in 1972 that she regrets.

Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon-administration Attorney General John Mitchell, came on the show and was scheduled to do a bit with Ernestine. But Tomlin refused.

“She was a very colorful figure in the news,” Tomlin said. “She was mouthing off so much that John Mitchell supposedly sedated her and took her off quietly because she knew something was going on but didn’t know what. But she was made an object of scorn. She had a very broad southern accent and was flamboyant and it was easy for people to ridicule her.

“And I didn’t want to be on screen with her at the time. I didn’t want it to be shown that I endorsed any aspect of the Nixon administration.”

Later, Martha wrote in a memoir that the episode hurt her at a time when she was already experiencing so much rejection – and by someone with southern roots.

“And I thought, ‘You can only do that when you’re young,'” Tomlin said.

She also wishes she hadn’t refused to be in a photograph with John Wayne, who appeared on “Laugh-In”: “I was taking a big stand, and I’d like to have the picture now!”

She has mellowed in her older age, dropping the rigid righteousness, she said, but not turning away from her commitment to women’s rights and other causes. She still does benefit shows and “The Search,” despite its across-the-board skewering, is still a live- wire political exploration.

“If you armor yourself against everything else (when you’re young), you’re really so vulnerable that you can’t even come in proximity of somebody with a different point of view,” she said.

When you’re older, “you just have a broader view of the planet and are more forgiving. Some people would say that’s softer, but that’s how I feel.”

As far as co-stars go, Tomlin said Steve Martin is one of her favorites: “He’s kind of a lonely heart, so it tugs you toward him.”

Not surprisingly, Wagner, an accomplished writer in her own right, is Tomlin’s favorite director.

The two have been working to prepare “The Search” for this run, tinkering with new technology for the lighting, sound and effects. The iron-pumping character, Paul, will be added to the original stage production. He has always been in the script, but “he revealed too much too soon,” so he was left out and now will be included later.

Tomlin spends her days and nights rethinking and rehearsing “The Search.” She describes herself as an “around-the-clock person. I like a debauched, decadent life that’s lived all night, and then a real wholesome, refreshed pristine life that’s lived in the really early morning hours, and then you retire early.

“You have to get them both,” she said.

And you can, if you’ve got all those character friends to visit.

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* Staff writer Jen Graves covers the arts. Reach her at 253-597- 8568 or [email protected].

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SIDEBAR: The Characters

Lily Tomlin inhabits a dozen characters in Jane Wagner’s “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” Here’s a chance to get to know them before you see it:

* Trudy, the mad, wise bag lady/narrator.

“You people look at my shopping bags, call me crazy ’cause I save this junk. What should we call the ones who buy it?”

Character photos courtesy www. lilytomlin. com

* Agnus Angst, a precocious 15-year-old punk performance artist.

“No matter how much contempt I have for society it’s nothing compared to the contempt society has for me.”

* Marie and Lud, Agnus’ bickering, perplexed grandparents.

Marie to Lud: “Remember when she was little? She’d stay over. I’d make chocolate milk and I’d make me a little milk mustache, and pretend I didn’t notice, and then you’d make one and there we’d be – the two of us with little chocolate milk mustaches. Used to just tickle her to death.”

* Kate, a burned-out socialite with a bad haircut.

“Have you ever used the expression, ‘I am dying of boredom’? Well, so have I; I have used it all my life. It says here if you use it that often, that may be exactly what you are doing.”

* Edie, a radical feminist journalist.

“This is a night for celebration. Not only did the Sisters get to watch Billy Jean bust Bobby Riggs’ chauvinistic butt but guess what? I got a job at The Free Press doing my own feature: ‘Boycotts of the Month’!”

* Marge, a scarred woman who takes refuge in cocaine and alcohol.

“I’ll tell you what’s ironic. … The rapist made off with my Mark Cross rape whistle.”

* Lyn, a left-leaning friend of Edie’s and Marge’s who thoughtfully struggles through the disappointments of New Age living.

“If I’d known this is what it would be like to have it all, I might have been willing to settle for less.”

* Brandy and Tina, two straight-talking prostitutes who give a journalist an earful.

Tina: “I got news. What’s between her legs is her life history. But me and Brandy are gettin’ out of this genital jive; we got entrepreneurial plans …”

* Chrissy, a single aerobicizer who can’t keep a job.

“All my life I’ve always wanted to be somebody. But I see now I should have been more specific.”

* Paul, a divorced bodybuilder searching for meaning.

“Yeah, my sex urge is still industrial strength, but where’s the desire? I miss the disco scene, man. I feel about the disco days what hippies must feel about Woodstock.”

– Jen Graves, The News Tribune

Copyright Tacoma News, Inc. Sep 5, 2000
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.