Imagine a world in which irascible operator Ernestine answers the phones at your health insurance company, precocious kid Edith Ann attends elementary school and genteel housewife Mrs. Judith Beasley runs the PTA.
“To me, they’re people who live out there some place and I’m just one of the people who imitate them,” comedian Lily Tomlin said of her colorful creations. “They become cultural voices.”
Over the course of her decades-long career, Tomlin has created some of the most memorable characters in show business — from Trudy the bag lady to lounge lizard Tommy Velour. She’s also established herself as a stage and screen veteran, winning six Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards, a Grammy Award and two Peabody Awards.
As Tomlin recently told Seattle Weekly, each project has embraced “whatever it is that unifies us as a species.”
Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit, Tomlin would put on puppet shows on her back porch.
“I imitated my parents or my neighbors,” she said, as well as the eccentric relatives she met during summer visits to Kentucky. “I was exposed to so many people — everybody with their own idiosyncrasies. ... As much as you thought they were different, they weren’t that different at all.”
Tomlin also took her cues from the funny women she saw on television — ditzy Lucille Ball, glamorous Jean Carroll and rubber-faced Imogene Coca.
She launched her own stand-up comedy career after moving to New York in 1965.
“Back in those days, most people had a comedic persona,” Tomlin said, such as striking features or a messy mop of hair.
“I would do characters (and) they would say to me, ‘Oh, it’s too bad you don’t have a funny voice,’ ” she recalled. “I would say, ‘But my characters have funny voices!’”
Tomlin made her television debut in 1966 on “The Garry Moore Show.” Several appearances on “The Merv Griffin Show” led to a brief stint on “The Music Scene.”
Then, in December 1979, Tomlin joined the cast of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” Her kooky characters quickly won over fans of the sketch comedy show.
Ernestine was “immensely popular” from the start, Tomlin said of the prune-faced, power-hungry peon. “For whatever reason, she struck a chord with people.”
Tomlin’s Tony Award-winning shows, 1977’s “Appearing Nitely” and 1985’s “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” introduced more characters to the mix — such as Rick the singles-bar cruiser and blues revivalist Sister Boogie Woman.
Tomlin later brought her cavalcade of characters to television, starring in six comedy specials and appearing in “The Magic School Bus,” “Murphy Brown” and “The West Wing.”
This past season, she played a scheming sister on “Desperate Housewives” and the matriarch of a New York family accused of financial fraud on “Damages.”
“ ‘Damages’ especially has this knack of writing from week to week depending on what they see in the actors. We never knew how bad we were,” Tomlin said. “It’s sort of exciting to do a show like that.”
Tomlin, whose films include “9 to 5,” “All of Me” and “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” said she prefers playing “a character that is both serious and funny.”
“It can be very wrenched and stylistic on one end and it can be extremely naturalistic on the other end,” she said.
Over the years, Tomlin has worked with such film luminaries as Carl Reiner and Woody Allen. But her partnership with director Robert Altman, spanning four films, stands apart from the rest.
Tomlin made her film debut in “Nashville,” Altman’s 1975 ensemble film about the country and gospel music industries. She plays gospel singer Linnea Reese, loving mother of two deaf children.
Although critics loved the movie, which earned her an Oscar nomination, Tomlin said Music Row was less than thrilled by its satirical portrayal of country-western stars.
“I know how sensitive Southerners are. I said, ‘I hope we get out of town before anybody sees it,’” she recalled.
Tomlin also appeared in “Short Cuts” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” She even contributed a last-minute cameo to “The Player,” donning a vintage bathrobe for an improvised scene with Scott Glenn.
“You would do almost anything for Bob,” Tomlin explained. “You adored working with Bob because he was so easy and affable.
“You never failed with him. You could try anything and it never felt like you embarrassed yourself.”
Tomlin’s association with David O. Russell, who directed her in “Flirting with Disaster” and “I (Heart) Huckabees,” has been more problematic. Video of their violent arguments on the set of the 2004 existential comedy surfaced four years later.
“I have tremendous regard for him as a talent,” Tomlin said of Russell, who also directed Oscar nominee “The Fighter.” “There’s an element to him that’s like Altman because he’s so freewheeling. He’s also fearless on a set.”
Still, she admitted, “We did behave badly. We lost our tempers.”
Tomlin’s most fruitful affiliation has been with longtime partner Jane Wagner. The two met in 1971 when Tomlin was searching for a writer for the comedy album “Edith Ann: And That’s the Truth” — they’ve been working together ever since.
In fact, Tomlin said, she initially refused the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor because she felt Wagner deserved it more. She accepted the award in 2003 on the condition that she’d acknowledge her partner as much as possible.
“Anything I share with Jane makes me happy,” Tomlin said. “She’s really exceptional.”
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