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Friday, 30 May, 2014 11:31 AM
Lily Tomlin talks Wayne State, Ann Arbor Summer Festival and 'Grace & Frankie'
Tomlin has played over 40 characters during her career in film, television and on Broadway.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Lily Tomlin was born on Sept. 1, 1939 in Detroit and graduated from Cass Tech High School. She later went on to study nursing at Wayne University, now known as Wayne State University. The 74-year-old Motor City native is best known for her role as Ernestine the telephone operator on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." Look for her to kick off the 2014 Ann Arbor Summer Festival with an "Evening of Classic Comedy" at the Hill Auditorium on June 14, 2014. Then, she will star in the new Netflix series "Grace and Frankie" alongside Jane Fonda, set to air sometime in 2015.
"Detroit was a pretty gritty inner city school," Tomlin said in an exclusive interview. "I mean there was a lot of politics involved, I always thought. I grew up at Clairemont and 12th Street. That was the area that burned down in the '67 riots. I thought Detroit was a great city to grow up in. I went to Hutchins Junior High. All of the minor league teams practiced there. I pitched on the Police Athletic League baseball team. In the summer, we did sports and crafts."
How did you get started doing comedy?
"I always put on shows my whole life since I was a kid," she answered. "It was just something I liked to do. Make up stuff, try to sell tickets to neighbors, I was in an apartment house trying to get other kids to be in the show. I would hang curtains and try to make a stage. I just had this burning passion to make a show and started doing it very early and kept doing it. Sometimes I would succeed in getting other kids to be in the show. Most times, they couldn't be less interested. So I started doing it by myself. I did ballet and tap at the Department of Parks and Recreation across the street."
You've played many characters over the years on film and television. Which was your favorite and why?
"There's so many that are fun. They have fun things to say. Ernestine has been going strong forever. Now, she works at a healthcare insurance club. Edith Ann is still trotting along. She's still six years old. It's just fun to do a kid. I've had two broadway shows filled with characters. I've done television specials with all different specials. I've probably done 40 or 50 characters if you counted everything. Some of them are more fun then others. Ernestine is the dominatrix. She's just going to have it her way and make you pay. God, there's so many characters I don't know where to begin."
Will it be your first time doing comedy in Ann Arbor?
"No, I've played there a couple of times," the actress-comedienne explained. "I went there about five years ago. When I was 18, I actually wrote a sonnet that I still have. It was all romantic and wonderful. I have a couple of friends in Ann Arbor and I see them once in a while. When I do a show, like I'll do in Ann Arbor, I'll do a bunch of characters and my character-driven video. So I marked my time in Ann Arbor. I always look forward to coming to Michigan. I stop and see my cousin who still lives in Shelby Township. "
Can you do a few lines from "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In"?
"Ernestine might say, 'Have I reached the party to whom I'm speaking? One Ringy Dingy, Two Ringy Dingy,'" the Detroit native recalled. "I give the best years of my life to AT&T. Yeah, what do you want Jason? What do you want from me? Do you want blood, do you want sweat, do you want tears? I've given all I can give to the public!"
I understand that "Laugh In" was taped at NBC Studios in Burbank. They recently moved out of there into Universal City.
"They may well have done that. There's been lots of things taped at NBC over the years. The networks aren't the way they were at one time. They didn't have their huge roster of shows. If they did, they taped at many other different facilities around the city. I'm not surprised of anything that's happened. That's where 'The Tonight Show' was done and everything from 'Laugh In' to 'Andy Williams' to whatever. That's been years ago. In the interim, all kinds of companies have used those facilities. I go there for other kinds of things."
What was it like starring on the ABC sitcom "Malibu Country." How was that for you?
"I'm very fond of Reba and knew her a bit," Tomlin explained. "My brother lives in Nashville so I'd run into Reba from time to time. I saw her do 'Annie Get Your Gun' on Broadway a few years back. She was absolutely breathtaking. So alive and so in the moment. It was so sublime it was just eloquent. So I was very excited when I got asked to be on her show. I named that character after my own mother, Lillie Mae. I had that wig made, my mother had white hair. All in all, it was a fun show to do. I was sorry when it got cancelled."
Please tell me more about your new Netflix show "Grace and Frankie" with Jane Fonda.
"It's about two women our age who have been married to law partners for about 40 years," she said. "We don't like each other very much. We've been together all these years for our husbands' partnership. We took vacations together and holidays. We're looking forward to our husbands' retirement to do traveling and great things like that. We have a dinner where we think they are announcing their retirement. Instead, they announce they were lovers for 15 or 20 years and they're going to abandon us and get married. It's all about us starting over and all we've got is each other, basically. That won't be on the air until next year."
I was fortunate to be at your star ceremony in Palm Springs two years ago. That had to be an exciting honor for you.
"Yes it was. We liked that a lot, Jane and I. I always wanted to have a star with Jane because we've worked together so much. I've never been able to apply for one in Hollywood. You pay for your star or someone has to pay for it, anyway. Usually a studio or somebody with a lot of cash will step in and do it for publicity. If the opportunity came, it's fine. That's not something I actively seek. It just one of the flourishes of celebrity."
You were a guest on "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" on Nov. 27, 2012. What are your thoughts on him stepping down?
"Oh, I'm going to miss him. I really love Craig. He's so funny. He's one of the few shows that you don't even have to do prep. I mean, they don't pre-interview you for what you're going to talk about. You just go out and wing it. That's what I like. When you do a talk show, very often they pre-screen you. You have to come up with a bunch of stories that you can tell that they think are going to be funny. In the old days, I could never figure out what they were trying to ask me. Then, they paraphrase it or try to make it conversational and you already forgot what you talked to the screener about. I think it's much better to go out there and rise or fall on the spontaneity. He's really funny, I'm sorry to see him step down. I hope to do it once before he goes."
Who are some stars that you would still like to work with on film, television or maybe on Broadway?
"Oh boy, I've worked with a lot of them," the Detroit native answered. "I don't know. I could name a dozen different people. It depends on what the project is. I've gotten a chance to work with Meryl [Steep], that was great. I've worked with Bette [Midler], I've worked with Steve Martin, Jane [Fonda] and Dolly [Parton]. Most recently, I did 'Admission' and I worked with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. I do a regular show on Showtime. I play Lisa Kudrow's mother. There's all kinds of good people and there's always a whole new generation of actors and directors."
What is your advice to people who aspire to be an actor, comedian or writer?
"Just do it. You have to get out and do it. If you want to write, you have to write. If you want to act, you have to act. If you want to dance, you have to dance. By making yourself part of that community, you're going to meet people who are doing it at different levels. Hopefully, if you're proving your craft, meeting people or networking with people, you'll get a show through somebody you've come to know. All you can do is live the life."
Tomlin will kick off the 2014 Ann Arbor Summer Festival with an "Evening of Classic Comedy" at the Hill Auditorium on June 14, 2014. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.a2sf.org/tickets/buy-tickets. Visit her official website at LilyTomlin.com.
Related Stories: Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner receive 345th Golden Star in Palm Springs, CA;
Tomlin graduated from the former Cass Tech High School in Detroit.
She later went on to study nursing at Wayne University, now known as Wayne State University.
The Detroit native received a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Fame on March 16, 2012.
Look for her to perform at the Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor on June 14, 2014.
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