Her hat flopping, her glasses riding low on her nose, the reporter is a study in adenoidal intensity. “Lily,” she demands, “what do you feel when you see yourself on TV?”
A model of silky noncooperation, Lily answers with a question of her own: “What does a chameleon see when it looks into a mirror?”
Lily is Lily Tomlin — of course. The reporter is Lily Tomlin — of course. And the chameleon is Lily Tomlin too. Indeed, if someone were to ask the real Lily Tomlin to stand up this week when she opens her one-woman show on Broadway, there would be either dead silence — or a forest of waving hands.
The first arm to rise would belong to Ernestine, the Mussolini of the switchboard. “This is the telephone company,” she might announce. “We are not subject to city, state or federal legislation. We are omnipotent.” Or: “Here at the telephone company we handle 84 billion calls a year, serving everyone from Presidents and kings to the scum of the earth.”
Then there would be Edith Ann, a 5!/2-year-old demon even the devil could not exorcise. Edith Ann’s idea of playing with dolls is to put one under her dress-and tell everyone she’s pregnant. “I don’t usually get a cold,” she confides “I have leprosy.”
Tess the Bag Woman would be next. She sells potholders, rifles garbage cans and chats with little guys in flying saucers. “Tell them the world is cracked,” one of them commanded her a while back. “Boy,” she sighs, “did I know that.” If nobody, believes her when she says the world ‘is cracked, her friends from space instruct her, she should take the message to the National Enquirer. “Even if they don’t believe you,” the saucerites say, ” they might run it anyway.”
The Lilys go on and on. Down there in the front row is Lupe, the world’s oldest beautician, whose face seems more left than lifted. “Lines, lines, go away,” she says, “Pay a visit to Doris Day.” At the back of the theater, sitting in a wheelchair, is Crystal the Terrible Tumbleweed. A quadriplegic, Crystal has been crossing the country in her wheelchair, the CB-equipped Iron Duchess: when last seen, she was on her way to hang-glide off Big Sur, Calif. Waggering down the aisle, belching and downing a beer at the same time, is Rick, the ex-football bruiser turned singles-bar cruiser. Sitting in the front row is his natural enemy, Mrs. Beasley, the perfect housewife from Calumet City, Ill. Mrs. Beasley’s brain is a pincushion of anxiety. “These days it’s not enough for a housewife to be loving and neat as a pin,” she frets. “We must be creative. There are some things you can make so cleverly that it is virtually impossible for anyone to tell if you have talent or not.”
Lily Tomlin, at age 37, the woman with the kaleidoscopic face, is just about that clever herself. She becomes the embodiment of Edith Ann, Lupe, Rick, Tess and a dozen or so others so quickly and flawlessly that she fools even the pros. “I don’t think Tomlin really acts,” says Robert Benton, who directed her in the year’s sleeper film hit, The Late Show. “Her imagination is so vast that she just assumes the personality of the character.”
There are no better comedians around now, and on the evidence of Nashville and The Late Show, few better actresses. In the latter she plays Margo, a pill-pushing whacko on the edge of survival in Los Angeles. She and Art Carney, as a patient private eye, may just be the oddest — but most likable –mix since Tracy and Hepburn were thrown together a generation ago.
Carney thinks Tomlin “the has greatest range of any actress now.” Nashville showed it. As Linnea, the dutiful mother of two deaf children, she acts mesmerically with her eyes. Says Co-Star Henry Gibson: “I will always cherish the bar scene when Lily listens to Keith Carradine. The look on her face — a combination of love for this rock singer and guilt for the adultery she knew would take place — why, it just tears you.” He is right.
Broadway revues are a tough challenge for any performer, however gifted, but Lily Tomlin brings along the advantage of having not only an audience but a following. For all the people who think that there is no one like her — and there isn’t — seeing her live for the first time is a little like the old days when you finally got to see your favorite radio comedian in a movie.
Tomlin’s following began to gather in her three years on Laugh-ln (1969-’72), where her oldest characters, like Ernestine and Edith Ann, were born. Several television specials and two socko sessions as host of NBC’s Saturday Night have added to her fans. She has crisscrossed the country with various one woman shows (the Broadway evening, which was S.R.O. in its Chicago and Boston tryouts, has largely new material). “My instincts tell me now’s the time to do it,” she says. “But I’m still scared stiff.”
Her show is, in fact, very fast and funny, but humor is secondary to the development of character. She follows a comic rule Charlie Chaplin laid down a long time ago. “Comedy must be real and true to life,” said Chaplin. :My comedy is actual life with the slightest twist or exaggeration.” To that, Tomlin adds: “I construct a compressed accuracy, a character essence that is as true and real as I can get it. I don’t go for laughter. I never play for a joke, per se. If the joke gets in the character’s way, I take it out.”
Though she has never been to one of Lee Strasberg’s classes, Tomlin carries method acting to its limit. She does not take on a character; the character takes her on. Lily speaks of a creation in the third person and tells stories about her as if she were an eccentric cousin or a peculiar aunt. When the box office opened for her Broadway show a few weeks ago, for example, Mrs. Beasley showed up in a Red Cross uniform to give coffee and donuts to those standing in line. “I wouldn’t go out there,” says Lily, “so Mrs. Beasley went out there to take care of them in the cold.”
Instead of saying something is not quite right for one of her people, Lily will say with genuine surprise, “0h, no, she wouldn’t do that.” A few years ago. AT&T offered her $500,000 to play Ernestine for the phone company, instead of against it. Ernestine -not Lily – was offended and turned it down. It was not something a toughie like Ernestine would do. Says Lily, “Do you think Ernestine is not a real person? Do you think my characters are not real? They’re out there somewhere. I just imitate them.”
Lily can become one of her “real” people very suddenly. At a dinner, when the conversation has begun to annoy her, she will pucker her lips and pull her face down so that it looks long enough to get her into the starting gate at Aqueduct. That will be Ernestine:
“A gracious hello.” (Snort, snort) “This is installation and repair service. Miss Tomlin speaking clearly into her mouthpiece. Who’s calling, please? The A.M.A.? What’s that stand for, Anna Maria Alberghetti? Oh, Don’t get so uptight. It’s just a little joke. Not unlike Medicare.”
Says Jane Wagner, her friend and collaborator: “I don’t know how she takes on the personalities of these characters. I’ve never seen her rehearse to get them, or stand in front of a mirror experimenting. She just gets up and does them. It’s a comedic possession, but maybe demonic possession is just around the bend.”
Comedian Richard Pryor believes that both he and Lily are possessed. “We are soul mates. I mean the characters we do literally take possession of us. You’re O.K. as long as you keep an eye on what’s happening, as long as you don’t get scared and tighten up. Because then you lose control over yourself and the character takes over completely. I’ve never seen it happen to any other entertainers but Lily and me. You can see the physical change take place when she’s working. It is eerie.”
With some of her new characters – like Sister Boogie Woman – the possession seems complete. Sister Boogie Woman is a Southern evangelist, and when she’s got the boogie she shakes like a palm tree in a hurricane. What’s boogie? Let her tell:
“Boogie’s not a meanin’, boogie’s a feelin’. Boogie takes the question marks outta yer eyes, puts little exclamation marks in they place. Are ya on my beam? Boogie’s when the rest of the world is lookin’ you straight in the eye sayin’ you’ll never be able ta make it and ya got your teeth in a jar and those teeth say, ‘Yes I can, yes I can.’ [At this point Sister Boogie Woman puffs with exertion.] ‘Yes I can. Yes 1 can.’ I say think of yourself as a potato chip and life as a dip. I say think of yourself as a chicken leg and life as Shake ‘n Bake.”
Tomlin picks up characters nearly everywhere. Sister Boogie Woman, for instance, was the idea of New York Novelist Cynthia Buchanan (Maiden). Crystal, the quadriplegic, stretches the limits of humor, but the notion came from a fan, the mother of a crippled child, who thought it would be “terrifically inspiring” for the handicapped if Lily did one of them. The woman even furnished one of Crystal’s best lines: “At an amusement park a little kid asked me if I was a ride.” Lupe, the world’s oldest beautician, is modeled after the late Helena Rubinstein.
Like any good parent, Lily claims to love all her characters equally, but she admits that Ernestine is first among them. Why? The answer is surprising. “Doing Ernestine is really a very sexual experience. I just squeeze myself very tight from the face down. The bottom line with Ernestine is that she’s a very sensual person,” says Lily, who herself moves with the free, confident grace of a dancer. “She’s a woman who knows she has a very appealing body and likes to show it off.”
All of Tomlin’s characters reflect one or another of her chameleon shades. Some emerge straight out of a working class background and her memories of growing up amid the plastic totems of the ’50s. Indeed, everything about the ’50s seems to have a kind of magic for her, and in conversation, as well as her act, she returns to those years, as if drawn by a magnet of nostalgia. Lily’s family came from the Kentucky hill country, but like many impoverished Southerners, her parents moved north to Detroit during the Depression. She was born there in 1939 and named Mary Jean. Her father Guy became a toolmaker in a brass factory, where he prided himself on being able to devise any tool his bosses needed. Often he would bring them home to show “Babe”, as he called her. Says Lily: “I was about 15 when I visited the factory where my father had worked for 35 years. I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that he could have worked there ten hours a day, under such terrible conditions. The noise was so deafening.“
Gradually Guy drank more and more. Lily would go with him to the neighborhood bars, where he would make her sing. He was proud of her, constantly encouraging her to “show out” and display her flair for the dramatic.
Lillie Mae, her mother, whose name she eventually took, had a more placid disposition. But almost from the minute they finished with diapers, she found herself unable to control Lily and her brother Richard, who was four years younger. One day Lily and Richard decided that the living-room sofa would look better as a sectional. Practical kids, they picked up a saw, and divided it into three pieces.
“My parents would go to bed,” Lily recalls, “and Richard and I would stay up till 2 in the morning. Richard, who was 13 or so then, would put on a satin smoking jacket, light a cigarette and march around with a glass of something. I really think Mother sensed that we might take a stick to her if she didn’t stop telling us what to do. So she decided to stop mothering.” Lillie Mae, who returned to Kentucky after Guy died in 1973, says simply: “Lily was always a stubborn child, and I went along with a lot of things other mothers didn’t.”
Early on Lily knew the definition of money: independence. When she was seven, she sent away for “a whole bunch of old sleazy stuff advertised in the back of a comic book, like itching powder and hand buzzers. It came C.O.D. and cost $11. My poor mother was intimidated enough to pay for it, but when I got home from school, she said, ‘You can’t have it until you can pay me back.’ I said, ‘How’s a kid supposed to get any money?’ ‘You could,’ she answered, ‘do errands for people.’ That was a revelation to me. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it myself. There were about 40 apartments in our building, and so I sent around a list of things I would do — like go to the store or take down the garbage for 10c. From then on I had money to buy what I wanted, or I could chip in the extra $2 to buy a more glamorous pair of shoes.” Clerking jobs in dime stores followed when she reached 14, the legal working age, Lily has never stopped working since.
Then, now and always she has done precisely what she wanted. When she was 14 – about the age many girls in 1953 were starting to put on lipstick – she hitchhiked from Detroit to Chicago without telling her mother. In high school she would skip twelve or 13 days of school if she didn’t think her hair had set right. At about the same time, she began putting on two-piece bathing suits, and after locking the door to her parents room, she would climb up on her mother’s dressing table to lie on her side and study her image in a horizontal mirror. “What I wanted, more than anything else,” she says, “was that Esther Williams full roundness in the hips. Mine were flat. That bit I do in my show about putting padding in my hips when I was a high school cheerleader – absolutely true.”
By her own description, Lily was not a lovable child – and was an even less lovable adolescent. Her new show has a hilarious routine in which Mom and Pop Tomlin sit in the living room arguing about cake. It doesn’t have frosting tonight, complains Pop. It doesn’t have frosting, answers Mom, because frosting gave you a rash last Tuesday. Oh, says Pop. Sure it was Tuesday? Yup, says Mom. And so on. Every few minutes Lily comes through screaming. “Stop talking about that cake!” Explains Lily: “That was pretty much how the Tomlins were when I was 13 or 14. I was really Miss Loathsome, but my parents were great!”
After high school Lily entered Detroit’s Wayne State University as a pre-med student because “I wanted to be a doctor. What I really wanted was to have autonomy. In those years – remember, this is 15 years ago – you either had to be exceptional or be married. I never wanted to be dependent on anybody, and I was darned good in science.” In her spare time she acted in school plays, and after dropping out of Wayne State, she did a year’s stint at Detroit’s Unstabled, a Greenwich Village-like cabaret.
In 1966 she came to New York, where she auditioned for Garry Moore’s television variety show by dancing in bare feet – with taps taped onto the bottoms. Moore was charmed by the innocent grotesqueness of it all and hired her. The show – not Lily – was a bomb, however, and it took three years in both Detroit and New York cabarets before she got the Big Chance on Laugh-In. When she started rehearsing Ernestine, says Producer George Schlatter, “everybody onstage, every member of the crew knew that something important was happening. Lily did more for us than we did for her. We needed her desperately.”
Ernestine was an instantaneous hit in the way only TV can create success. Little kids were immediately imitating Ernestine’s “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” the way they said “dyno-mite” like Good Times’ Jimmy Walker last year. Schlatter left Laugh-In in 1972, and the show, reflecting the straitlaced Nixon years, had less room for Tomlin’s wild, irreverent humor. Before it folded in 1973, she was suing NBC to be released.
Both CBS and ABC hired her for specials, with the possibility of a regular show, but the Sixth Avenue hotshots ran nervously for their DI-Gel every time she appeared on the screen. Tomlin, went the word, was not safe – something Lily could have told them at the start. Says she: “Commercial television specializes in escapist fantasy. I deal with culture reality.” Adds Jane Wagner, who co-produced two of the TV specials: “The network bosses think Lily is a genius, but they are also scared to death of her.”
Luckily, Lily no longer needs them. With the success of The Late Show, her future in the movies seems boundless, if somewhat undefined at the moment. If she makes it big on Broadway as well, she can probably do just about anything she wants -including TV, if she will still deign to do it. “Appearing on Broadway legitimizes me as a concert performer.” she says. “New York and Los Angeles have the most demanding, knowledgeable audiences in the country.”
She will be ready for them. There is really very little that daunts Lily Tomlin. When the crew of The Late Show gave her a hard time – or what she thought was a hard time – she marched right up to them. “Listen, you bastards,” she said, sounding a little like Mary Jean from Detroit. “I know what’s going to happen to me after this movie. I’m going to get good notices and do another film. Do you know what’s going to happen to you? Maybe you won’t work again for another year. So shove it!” There was no more trouble. Lily is as devoted to the feminist cause as any performer in the country. She has appeared at benefits in support of the Equal Rights Amendment in St. Louis, Cleveland and Denver, and she has campaigned for Bella Abzug and Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso. A few years ago, she was appearing on the Dick Cavett Show when Actor Chad Everett referred to his wife as his property – along with his horse and dog. She stunned even herself by walking off the show.
One source of constant irritation to her is what she believes is the repressed body language of women in her audiences. I see these very stiff, inhibited women who move and act so much like my character Mrs. Beasley, and I think it’s criminal. This is what the culture has done to a lot of women – made them so uptight, so uncertain, so thwarted. It’s a matter of power and powerlessness.
“I’m not too articulate about this,” she adds. “I know things intuitively more than I know them verbally, but my instincts are sharp. I do a one-liner that says it: “Have you ever seen a man walk up to four women sitting together in a bar and say. ‘Hey, what are you doing here all alone?” Still, she does not intrude her sexual politics into the show and she makes fun of everyone, feminists included. “What,” she asks, “would be your position on women’s lib if you were a passenger on the Titanic?”
Money still means freedom to her, but in a day when a Brando or a Redford can make up to $2 million for one picture, her earnings are relatively modest. Nashville netted her only $12,000. The Late Show $100,000. She estimates her annual income at $200,000. Partly, out of caution, partly out of preference, she lives modestly. She and her crew of three or four travel economy class – I could afford first, but it seems to me to be an insult to my family and the life we’ve known.”
In Los Angeles, Lily shares a house off the Sunset Strip with Jane Wagner, who is also 37. Born in Tennessee, Wagner began writing for TV when she failed to score as an actress: she won a Peabody Award in 1969 for a children’s show about a black child growing up in New York. Since then, she has won three Emmys producing and writing Lily’s specials.
Even a Spartan might call Lily’s lifestyle spartan, and the house, painted a cerulean blue, is small, almost a parody of a star’s usual manse. “If I hit the skids tomorrow,” she says, “I could still afford the house.” She has a jukebox in the living room, an upright piano in the foyer and a small, cluttered study downstairs with pictures of cherished stars of the past like Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The ceiling of her bedroom is painted sky blue, with puffy white summer clouds – her brother Richard’s artwork. In the back there is a small swimming pool, beside which stand a 6 ft. metal robot, a souvenir from one of her TV specials, and a stone statue of a naked maiden-wearing a wig and sunglasses. Out front is a 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer. One of the ugliest cars ever to come out of Detroit, it is nonetheless a treasure to her: “I like cars that look like real cars I could identify when I was a kid.”
Food is as often forgotten as rernembered. When it does come to mind, it is usually taken at some place like Hamburger Hamlet, which is near by. “Lily’s idea of a night on the town is to go to Hamburger Hamlet, have dinner and then go back home and work,” says Richard, a Lily look-alike who makes furniture with friends in a handicraft shop. “You can go crazy at her house. The phone is ringing all the time, with writers or producers talking deals. Lily literally works around the clock. How she juggles everything, I couldn’t tell you. It’s a madhouse half the time.”
When she does relax, says Lily of herself, her idea of fun is “to get stoned with a few friends go out and have dinner, come back to the house, get stoned a little more, and then talk, talk, talk, talk about any and everything.” Marijuana, she says, might be even bigger in her life if she were not afraid that it is harmful to you ultimately.
At the edge of what seems to be big success, big money and big independence, the chameleon seems to be looking more often in the mirror. Last December Lily did something unheard of for her. She took a vacation, doing nothing – absolutely nothing – for two weeks at a health spa. She is also thinking of moving to New York, at least part time, and will try to find an apartment during her Broadway run. “I worked too hard before,” she says, trying to explain what is happening beneath that rubbery, racehorse face. “But going to the spa was like a beginning. I know better how to relax now — a little better, anyway. Or at least I’m starting to see a better way how to behave.” What does a chameleon see when it looks into a mirror? This chameleon is beginning to see Lily Tomlin.