Lily Tomlin, one of America’s favourite comediennes, was born in Detroit, Michigan and grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of one of the city’s most affluent areas. Although she claims she wasn’t funny as a child, Tomlin admits she “knew who was and lifted all their material right off the TV screen.” Her favorites included Lucille Ball, Bea Lillie, Imogene Coca, and Jean Carroll, one of the first female stand-ups on The Ed Sullivan Show. After high school, Tomlin enrolled at Wayne State University to study medicine, but her elective courses in theater arts compelled her to leave college to become a performer in local coffee houses. She moved to New York in 1965, where she soon built a strong following with her appearances at landmark clubs such as The Improvisation, Cafe Au Go Go, and the Upstairs at the Downstairs, where she later opened for the legendary Mabel Mercer in the Downstairs Room.
She continues to venture across an ever-widening range of media, starring in television, theater, motion pictures, animation, and video. Throughout her amazing career, Lily has received numerous awards, including: six Emmys; a Tony for her one woman Broadway show, “Appearing Nitely;” a second Tony as Best Actress, a CableAce Award for Executive Producing the film adaptation of The Search; 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 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 made her television debut in 1966 on The Garry Moore Show. After that she made several memorable appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, which led to a move to California where she appeared as a regular on Music Scene. In December 1969, Tomlin joined the cast of the top-rated Laugh-In and immediately rose to national prominence with her characterizations of Ernestine, the irascible telephone operator, and Edith Ann, the devilish six year old. When Laugh-In left the air, Tomlin went on to co-write, with Jane Wagner, and star in six comedy television specials: The Lily Tomlin Show (1973), Lily (1973), Lily (1974), Lily Tomlin (1975), Lily: Sold Out (1981), and Lily for President? (1982), for which she won three Emmy Awards and a Writers Guild of America Award. Tomlin also starred in the HBO special about the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On (1993). She has guest starred on numerous television shows, such as Homicide and X-Files, and played the boss for two years on the popular CBS series, Murphy Brown. Tomlin is also heard as the voice of the science teacher “Ms. Frizzle” on the popular children’s animated series, The Magic School Bus, for which she was awarded an Emmy.
Tomlin made her Broadway debut in the 1977 play, “Appearing Nitely,” written and directed by Jane Wagner. “Appearing Nitely” included such favorites as “Ernestine,” “Edith Ann” and “Judith Beasley”, the Calumet City housewife, and also introduced “Trudy” the bag lady, “Crystal” the hang-gliding quadriplegic, “Rick” the singles bar cruiser, “Glenna” as a child of the sixties, and “Sister Boogie Woman,” a 77-year-old blues revivalist.
“Appearing Nitely” was later adapted as both an album and an HBO Special. Tomlin next appeared on Broadway in 1985 in a year long, SRO run of Jane Wagner’s critically-acclaimed play, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” The Broadway success was followed by a coast-to-coast, 14-city tour that spanned four and a half years. Tomlin extended this extraordinary theatrical career with a cross-country, 29-city tour of “The Search,” a new production of “The Search” on Broadway, a record-breaking, six month run of the production in San Francisco, and a six week run in Los Angeles.
On big screen, Lily made her debut as “Linnea,” a gospel singer and mother of two deaf children in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975); her memorable performance was nominated for an Academy Award, and both the New York Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics voted Tomlin Best Supporting Actress. She next starred opposite Art Carney as a would-be actress living on the fringes of Hollywood in Robert Benton’s The Late Show (1977). She went on to star with John Travolta as a lonely housewife in Jane Wagner’s Moment By Moment (1978), and then teamed with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in the late Colin Higgins’ comedy, 9 to 5 (1980). She starred as the happy homemaker who became The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), written by Jane Wagner, and the eccentric rich woman whose soul invades Steve Martin’s body in Carl Reiner’s popular All of Me (1984). She then teamed with Bette Midler for Big Business (1988).
In the 90’s, Tomlin starred in the film adaptation of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life In the Universe (1991); appeared as part of an ensemble cast in Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1992); starred opposite Tom Waits in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993); and portrayed “Miss Jane Hathaway” in the screen adaptation of the popular television series The Beverly Hillbillies (1993). Tomlin also starred in the Miramax film Flirting With Disaster (1996) and joined Jack Lemmon, Dan Akroyd, and Bonnie Hunt in Getting Away with Murder (1996). Tomlin starred opposite Richard Dreyfuss and Jenna Elfman in Buena Vista’s Krippendorf’s Tribe (1998) and co-starred with Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Cher in the Franco Zeffirelli film Tea With Mussolini (1999). She most recently starred with Bruce Willis in Disney’s The Kid (2000) and appeared in a quirky cameo role in Orange County (2002).
In 2002, Tomlin joined the cast of the hit NBC TV show, The West Wing, playing “President Bartlett’s” assistant, “Debbie Fiderer”—a role for which she received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Best Actress in a Drama Series. After that, in summer 2003, she filmed I Love Huckabee’s, a David O. Russell comedy with Naiomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law and Mark Wahlberg. She was recently honored as the 2003 recipient of the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in Washington DC.