Lily Tomlin, an icon unto herself

Lily Tomlin is a Detroit success story. A Cass Tech graduate, she attended Wayne State University, first as a pre-med student. However, Tomlin found her true voice not looking through the small end of a microscope, but through the business end of a microphone.
Throughout her extraordinary entertainment career, Tomlin has received numerous awards, including six Emmys; a Tony for her one woman Broadway show, "Appearing Nitely;" a second Tony as Best Actress; Drama Desk Award and 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 for her comedy album, "This is a Recording," 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 Noel" and the second for narrating and executive producing the HBO film, "The Celluloid Closet."
Tomlin can now be seen regularly on the hit TV series "West Wing," where she plays the smart and sassy assistant to the President of the United States, played by Martin Sheen. Tomlin is also one of the LGBT community's most visible representatives. Although not comfortable playing the role of activist/leader, she is an honest, outspoken supporter of equal rights for LGBT people. She has given her name and support to LGBT projects and organizations, including the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in Los Angeles, where Tomlin and her long time partner, Jane Wagner, helped create the Lily Tomlin Jane Wagner Cultural Center, a theater and entertainment facility for the LGBT community. BTL's co-publisher Jan Stevenson recently talked with Tomlin on the phone from her home in California about growing up in Detroit, her career, being a gay star, and her upcoming appearance at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival June 25 at Hill Auditorium, 8 p.m. (For tickets call 734-764-2538.)

BTL: Thanks so much for speaking with me. Can you tell me about what you will be doing at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival?
Tomlin: Sure. I'm going to do an evening of classic Lily Tomlin as they say – or as I say, I don't know if anybody else says it or not. I'll do a lot of characters and, you know, unless you're an extremely hardcore fan you probably haven't seen them all. But I'll do some of the really early classics like Ernestine, Edith Ann, Judith Beasley and Mr. Boogeywoman.
BTL: Are you going to be doing The Grosse Pointe Matron?
Tomlin: No. Okay – I should, you know. In Detroit, I should, eh?
BTL: There you go!
Tomlin: You know I haven't really done a monologue with her in ages. Because I started doing her originally back in '62. I was in a college show, a kind of variety show that they did every year at Wayne State for scholarship money, and my mother's maiden name is Ford.
BTL: Oh Really? Any relation?
Tomlin: It's just like coincidence. My family was working class. I grew up in a very mixed neighborhood and I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of people, and I was just very socially conscious of people's economic classes and even their political points of view. I was in an old apartment house and so I watched my mother through the years, vicariously read the society pages, you know, and sort of fantasize about the Ford family, and I was totally aware of Grosse Pointe, and in '62 there was a big expose that it was covertly segregated. I just used to kind of do a society matron. Also Charlotte Ford was my age. That was the oldest Ford daughter. And she was making her debut party, her big debut. It was just a big deal in Detroit, you know, because the party was weeks in preparation and every day they'd write about it, like some new tent or some new twinkle light or something, and my Mom would say 'Oh if I could just…' – and my mom had heard that if you drove around the Ford estate you could see – I've told the story before so I don't know if you want to repeat it or not.
BTL: Go ahead.
Tomlin: But um, we didn't even have a car. We were like the only people in Detroit who didn't have a car. So my mother wanted to go and drive around the Ford estate 'cause she'd heard that through the hedges you could see the preparations. So I found an old car, literally an old, junky car from a college friend and I drove her around the estate, and there were people just like a big wagon train going around the estate trying to peep inside – and sure enough we could see twinkle lights or something. So anyway, I forget where I was going. Oh – and when this segregation thing came out, that was such a hot issue. So I kind of ad-libbed an interview with a guy. I got in the college show and I did this piece and it was just a sensation because it was the only thing relevant in the show. Everything else that everybody was doing was like a takeoff on Gunsmoke or a parody of the Academy Awards or something like that, and so this piece was the only piece that had any social commentary in it. I went on all the local shows with it. That's how I decided, I said, 'Hey I think I'll go to New York and try to do this,' cause I was in pre-med in college and I never would have been a doctor.
BTL: You were pre-med at Wayne State?
Tomlin: Yes. But the thing is, the best part of that story is, I had a cheerleader girlfriend in High School at Cass Tech and she is now Henry Ford's widow.
BTL: Really?
Tomlin: Yeah! And so when I was there [Detroit], I don't know with "The Search" in '89 or something like that, we went out to her house in Grosse Pointe and we called my mother and she said, 'You can come in the front door now, Mrs. Tomlin.'
BTL: Your character on "West Wing," Debbie Fiderer, is a great role. I love it. I can't wait every week to see what's going to happen next.
Tomlin: That's Aaron Sorkin, he's just terrific. He just wrote that part, so how lucky could I be to get it. I love being on the show and I tried to get on the show. I wanted to be on the show. And I did – I lucked out.
BTL: Do you think President Bartlett would support same-sex marriage?
Tomlin: Oh yeah, definitely. Well no, let me think, what would he say? You know, he would. He would support it on a Constitutional basis, as everyone should, at least.
BTL: Do you think the show's going to tackle that issue?
Tomlin: I wonder. I should suggest it to them. I don't know what they have in mind; we never know. We never know until, you know, the day we get the script.
BTL: Are you involved in the writing at all?
Tomlin: Oh, no, God no. When Aaron was on the show we never changed a word. We still don't really change anything. I mean it's a little more flexible, but we really do it absolutely verbatim.
BTL: Was it written in when you squirted Toby with your water bottle?
Tomlin: Yes.
BTL: That was a hysterical scene.
Tomlin: Ha! I haven't seen that episode yet.
BTL: You said that social consciousness is an essential part of your humor. You've used current events in your material, even in the movie "Tea with Mussolini," which was charming and beautiful in the heart of total devastation. How do you use what's going on in the world when you come up with your humor?
Tomlin: I always chose to speak to a culture type, I mean as myself. I always did observations. When I started out, usually when someone was doing stand up they had a persona and they would speak out of that one persona, whatever it was, like Joan Rivers or Totie Fields. There were so few women doing standup or that kind of comedy back then – but generally people had a persona, a straight, flat out stand-up persona that they sort of fictionalized their lives. Like Joan would be like the last girl before the freeway in Scarsdale, or wherever it was, or the last single girl or something like that. Anyway, I was just much more interested in different kinds of people. People would say, 'you're so regular, there's nothing eccentric about your personality,' like if I were on a talk show. Because in the old days the talk shows had very specific personalities, like Wally Cox. He was just like a funny character, and they would say to me, 'Too bad you don't have a funny voice or something,' and I would say, 'Well I don't, but the characters do.' And anyway, from growing up in Detroit in a very mixed neighborhood with all kinds of people in an old apartment house, I was just more amused and sort of madly in love actually with all these different kinds of people. And they all had something to say or feel or be, or they were funny in their own individual way.
BTL: Tell me about the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center. That's part of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Center Project right?
Tomlin: A pretty large contribution was made in our name to establish the Cultural Arts Center. It was made by the Moonwalk Foundation, which is administered by our lawyer.
BTL: Why was it important to you to lend your support and name to this?
Tomlin: Well, we got the money for the center, first of all. I've done lots of work and fundraising for the center anyway. In fact, Jane and I – we go back to the early days when it was like a little tiny building in the early 70's. It is part of the gay community here, and they built this annex for the big [social services] center, and then they created the Village which is where the theatre is, which is more a place for social interaction and theatre and art and so on.
BTL: You know, Detroit's getting a new community center.
Tomlin: Is it? Where's it going to be?
BTL: In Ferndale.
Tomlin: Ferndale! How great! Who would think Ferndale?
BTL: I know. They've raised almost $3 million for it so far.
Tomlin: Oh, well great! Well I didn't know about it.
BTL: It's very cool.
Tomlin: It is.
BTL: Do you still have connections and family back here?
Tomlin: Yeah, I have family. I have an aunt and her daughter and family in Shelby Township. I don't know all the suburbs because I grew up in the middle of Detroit, and I was always an inner city kid. My aunt is my dad's sister and I see them frequently or they come to visit my mother who lives in Nashville.
BTL: You are a real hero to a lot of people, especially LGBT people, and you are a role model for compassionate success. Do you know that, and do you accept that as part of your public persona?
Tomlin: Sure, I know that. Sure I have fans that come up to me who are gay you know. I don't try to be an example to other people. I don't take it on. I mean, if it is, it is. I want to be a good representative, but I can't say I am a role model, you know. If I say that I'm liable to suddenly do something that's very un-rolemodel-ish. It can be a problem, too. At times, if a kid would frequently come to shows and be just a little bit too involved I used to be kind of hard on them. I'd say, 'I don't know anything you don't know, and you don't need to be coming here. You're not going to find any answers to anything, and I'm just an entertainer.' Basically I was just saying, 'Get a life, don't be too focused on this, on me, or on what I do or on anything like that.' I think it should be demystified. We're just people, no matter what. I want to be more an icon to myself. If I feel okay about myself I suppose it's all right if someone feels okay about me.