Lily Tomlin: Playing for the smart laughs
Recently, she had a rebirth with her Netflix show Frankie and Grace. As the new generation hippie, Frankie, it’s pure Tomlin as she struggles to come to terms with her husband’s recently revealed gayness.
Together with her contemporaries Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston, Tomlin shows that this era of video-streaming is perfect for her intelligent brand of comedy.
Lily Tomlin: From stand-up comic to brilliant performer
Born on September 1, 1939 to Southern Baptist parents in Detroit, Michigan, Mary Jean “Lily” Tomlin took up the more practical course of Biology in college, perhaps because of her parents’ experience during the Great Depression.
Like most who venture into acting, she tried for a role in a play and managed to tap the performer in her.
Shifting courses, she studied acting and went on to do stand-up comedy in Detroit and then New York. She got her big break when she appeared on The Merv Griffin Show in 1965.
When she joined the sketch comedy show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, she became a big hit.
Through the years, she created numerous characters: from the arrogant telephone operator Ernestine to the philosophical Edith Anne who was five and a half years old.
She did recordings of her live comedy before embarking on a fruitful career in movies.
She’s appeared in movies like Nashville, 9 to 5, Big Business and the live comedy-turned-film, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
Lily Tomlin: Closet lesbian
Despite being in show business for decades and meeting her long-time partner, Jane Wager, way back in 1971, she wasn’t comfortable talking about her sexuality back then.
“I wasn’t totally forthcoming. Everybody in the business knew I was gay, and certainly everybody I worked with and everything like that. I just never had a press conference to announce it,” she told Huffington Post.
In 1975, Time Magazine wanted to put her on the cover for a story about coming out of the closet. She turned it down, telling The Washington Post she didn’t want to be known as “that gay person who does comedy.”
It was in 1997 when Time finally had that coming out story– but with Ellen DeGeneres on the cover.
“I’d wonder if I’d come out on that ‘75 cover of Time, if I would have had as long a career as I’ve had, because it would have been an inopportune time to make such a grand statement,” Tomlin said.
“I mean, Ellen didn’t really come out until 20 years later,” she added.
Citing her conservative Southern mother as the reason why she kept quiet about being a lesbian, Tomlin eventually married Wagner on New Year’s Eve in 2013 after being together for 42 years.