Tomlin at the 2014 Kennedy Center Honors
|Birth name||Mary Jean Tomlin|
September 1, 1939 |
|Medium||Stand-up, television, film, theatre|
Tomlin began her career as a stand-up comedian, and performing Off-Broadway during the 1960s. Her breakout role was performing as a cast member on the variety show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In from 1970 until 1973. She currently stars on the Netflix series Grace and Frankie as Frankie Bergstein. Her performance as Frankie garnered her a nomination for the Primetime Emmy Award in 2015.
In 1974 Tomlin was cast by Robert Altman in her first film; her performance as Linnea Reese in Nashville won her several awards and nominations for the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
In 1977, her performance as Margo Sperling in The Late Show won her the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival and nominations for the Golden Globe and BAFTA Award for Best Lead Actress. Her other notable films include 9 to 5 (1980), All of Me (1984), Flirting with Disaster (1996), Tea with Mussolini (1999), I Heart Huckabees (2004), and A Prairie Home Companion (2006).
Her signature role was written by her wife, Jane Wagner, in a show titled The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe which opened on Broadway in 1985 and won Tomlin the Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Play. She is also known as the voice of Mrs. Frizzle on the children's series The Magic School Bus. She won her first Emmy Awards in 1974 for writing and producing her own television special, Lily. Tomlin won a Grammy Award for her 1972 comedy album This Is a Recording. In 2014 she was given Kennedy Center Honors.
Tomlin was born in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of Lillie Mae (née Ford 1914-2005), a housewife and nurse's aide, and Guy Tomlin (1913-1970), a factory worker. She has a brother, Richard Tomlin. Tomlin's parents were Southern Baptists who moved to Detroit from Paducah, Kentucky, during the Great Depression. She is a 1957 graduate of Cass Technical High School. Tomlin attended Wayne State University and originally studied Biology. She auditioned for a play, and it sparked her interest in a career in the theatre and she changed her major. After college, Tomlin began doing stand-up comedy in nightclubs in Detroit and later in New York City. She continued studying acting at the HB Studio. Her first television appearance was on The Merv Griffin Show in 1965.
In 1969, after a stint as a hostess on the ABC series Music Scene, Tomlin joined NBC's sketch comedy show Rowan and Martin's 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 the regular characters she created; they became well known and she portrayed them outside of the show in later recordings and television specials:
Tomlin was one of the first female comedians to break out in male drag with her characters Tommy Velour and Rick . 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. She occasionally performed as them in various television special programs over the years.
In 1970, AT&T offered Tomlin $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 (Season 2 Episode 1, September 18, 1976), 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. She appeared as three of her minor characters in a 1998 ad campaign for Fidelity Investments, which did not include 'Ernestine' and 'Edith Ann.' In 2003, she made two commercials as an "updated" 'Ernestine' for WebEx.
Tomlin brought 'Edith Ann' to the forefront again in the 1990s with three animated prime-time television specials. She published Edith Ann's "autobiography" My Life (1995), co-written with Jane Wagner.
Tomlin released her first comedy album on Polydor Records in 1972, 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. 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.)
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.
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 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 9 to 5, 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 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, based on stories by Raymond Carver. Tomlin performed 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.
Tomlin collaborated again with director Robert Altman in what would prove to be his last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006). She played Rhonda Johnson, one half of a middle-aged Midwestern singing duo partnered 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. 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 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.
Tomlin and Kathryn Joosten were in talks to star in a Desperate Housewives spin-off, which was given the green light in May 2009. The series plan was scrapped due to Kathryn's illness and both on screen death and real life death in 2012. Tomlin guest-starred as Marilyn Tobin in the third season of Damages and in an episode of NCIS, most notably the Season 9 episode, "The Penelope Papers", playing Agent Timothy McGee's (Sean Murray) grandmother, Penelope Langston. In 2012, Tomlin guest starred on the HBO series Eastbound and Down. Appearing as Tammy Powers, mother of Kenny Powers, the show's main character, Tomlin appeared in three episodes of Season 3.
Tomlin co-starred with Reba McEntire in the TV series Malibu Country as Reba's character's mother Lillie Mae. The series started shooting in August 2012 with a premiere date of November 2, 2012 at 8:30pm ET, but was canceled in 2013 after 18 episodes.
Tomlin stars opposite Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston in the Netflix original series Grace and Frankie. Tomlin plays Frankie Bergstein, recently separated from her husband of forty years (Waterston), while Fonda plays Grace Hanson, recently separated from her husband (Sheen). Grace and Frankie become reluctant friends after learning their husbands are leaving them to be with one another. She received her first Emmy nomination as a lead actress for the role.
Tomlin met her wife Jane Wagner in March 1971. After watching the after-school TV special "J.T." written by Wagner, Tomlin invited Wagner to Los Angeles to collaborate on Tomlin's comedy LP record album And That's The Truth. The couple had no formal coming out. Tomlin said in 2006:
I certainly never called a press conference or anything like that. [Back in the '70s,] people didn't write about it. Even if they knew, they would [refer to Jane as] "Lily's collaborator," things like that. Some journalists are just motivated by their own sense of what they want to say or what they feel comfortable saying or writing about. In '77, I was on the cover of Time. The same week I had a big story in Newsweek. In one of the magazines it says I live alone, and the other magazine said I live with Jane Wagner. Unless you were so really adamantly out, and had made some declaration at some press conference, people back then didn't write about your relationship. ... In '75 I was making the Modern Scream album, and Jane and I were in the studio. My publicist called me and said, "Time will give you the cover if you'll come out." I was more offended than anything that they thought we'd make a deal. But that was '75 -- it would have been a hard thing to do at that time.
Tomlin stated in 2008, "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."
Tomlin has been involved in a number of feminist and gay-friendly film productions, and on her 1975 album Modern Scream she pokes fun at straight actors who make a point of distancing themselves from their gay and lesbian characters—answering the pseudo-interview question, she replies: "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..."
Tomlin has received numerous awards, including: four primetime Emmys; a special 1977 Tony when she was appearing in her one-woman Broadway show, Appearing Nitely; a second Tony as Best Actress, two Drama Desk Awards 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) 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. 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. In March 2009, Tomlin received Fenway Health's Dr. Susan M. Love Award for her contributions to women's health.
In December 2014 she was one of five honorees for the annual Kennedy Center Honors.
Tomlin has won six Emmy awards and a Daytime Emmy:
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