Gurney's Inn
May 23, 2007

Lily Tomlin: Starstruck, With Baggage

She's lived in beach houses in Malibu, and in 1977 Lily Tomlin stayed in a rented house on the ocean in East Hampton. "I loved the beach. It was beautiful . . . and then night began to fall." Alone in the secluded home, "I started to get panicked," she related in an interview last week. "I stayed up all night, finally falling asleep at dawn, and this went on for a couple of days."

Exhausted, she rented a huge potato barn in Bridgehampton. But it, too, failed to make her feel safe. "It had these flimsy glass doors." At her wits end, she visited a local B&B. "I told the woman I just wanted a room to sleep in. The woman there was so suspicious. She didn't know who I was."

That March, Tomlin had been featured on the cover of Time magazine. Spying a copy in the rack at the rooming house she showed the innkeeper and said, "Look, look that's me. I'm on the cover of Time, it's OK to rent to me . . . So I got a key and immediately I began to wonder how many other people have a key to the room." With a throaty infectious chuckle, the actress and comic summarized, "I guess I have security baggage."

Next month Tomlin will come – baggage and all – to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. She plans to be "doing Lily," in a performance she predicts will be "pretty informal." Perhaps audience members will be treated to visits from her earliest alter egos – child philosopher Edith Ann, or Ernestine, the telephone operator who asks, "Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?"

It's been almost 40 years since Tomlin unleashed those characters on the groundbreaking sketch comedy show Rowan & Martin's "Laugh-In." And unlike sad sack bag lady Gladys Ormphby who voiced the complaint, "I tried to join the sexual revolution, but I flunked the physical," Tomlin has sashayed through the decades racking up awards in almost every discipline.

Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Oscar have all smiled on her, just like the audiences in the 40 to 50 stand-up shows she performs each year. Live comedy performance is her first love. "Ever since I've been able to sell a ticket, I've always had an act. Even before 'Laugh-in.'"

Her voice softened by laryngitis – the side effect of a recent five show stint in Chicago – Tomlin revealed she initially balked at doing the show that catapulted her to stardom. "I thought anything on television was square," she said, "I wanted to be a great stage actress."

Reflecting on youth's hubris – "You're so full of yourself when you start out" – Tomlin recalled receiving scripts and throwing them in the trash. Over time in the business, however, as alliances and friendships blossomed and grew in number – "Sometimes it's your friend's script and you can't." With friends whose names read like a Who's Who in Hollywood, tossing scripts became a non-issue. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to work with the likes of Robert Altman and Robert Benton?

Still, the actress recalled early days performing in storefront theaters. "We'd leaflet and it'd say 'Lily's working on something new. No costumes. No props. No actors. No refunds.'" The would-be audience member was given a number to call for the address of the theater.

But Tomlin – who auditioned for the Gary Moore variety show with a tap dancing routine sans shoes – wearing the taps taped to her bare feet – couldn't keep her quirky talent from the masses for very long.

Soon, not only was she receiving movie scripts, she was receiving scripts with parts written expressly for her. She still seems bemused that Altman picked her to play Linnea Reese in Nashville, a role that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. From there, the roles she selected and those that were penned with her in mind – in films such as Nine To Five, All of Me, Big Business, Short Cuts – depict a body of work that demonstrates a dizzying versatility not often seen.

At 65, her workload is testament to energy not often seen in folks decades her junior. Besides performing stand up 40 to 50 times a year, Tomlin's excited about two projects due to debut. She'll play the matriarch of a wealthy Dallas family in the HBO series "12 Miles of Bad Road." A sprawling ensemble show, the hour-long comedy is the brainchild of Linda Bloodworth - Thomason ("Designing Women," "Murphy Brown"). No stranger to ensemble television, Tomlin was on the critically acclaimed series "The West Wing" for four years.

Also due for release is The Walker, starring Woody Harrelson. The story revolves around Harrelson's character, a gay man who serves as companion to wives of power brokers. Alongside Lauren Bacall and Kristin Scott Thomas, Tomlin plays one of three rich, if unescorted, women who gather to play cards. As the plot unfolds her character reveals a petty, superficial side, shunning Harrelson when he becomes embroiled in a Washington scandal. To the notion of her masterful ability to portray dark characters, she said, "I don't know if I did it or not. Don't count on it. The best part of it was I got to be friends with Lauren Bacall."

Reminding, "I'm just a working class girl from Detroit," Tomlin admitted to being starstruck in the presence of the Hollywood icon. "I didn't ever expect that one day I'd be sitting with Lauren Bacall playing cards," she said, awe flavoring the comment.

The unexpected has been a theme throughout Tomlin's career. In her Tony Award - winning smash hit The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Tomlin wowed audiences, weaving together 12 disparate characters to create a tour de force that won critical acclaim and was made into a feature film in 1991. Her long time life partner Jane Wagner wrote the one-woman show.

"Oh, I don't know," Tomlin sighed, when asked how couples who work together can also live together successfully. "I just keep saying, 'Please write!! Please write!!'" Long before the reality TV craze hit America, Tomlin said she toyed with the idea of creating a set that replicated her and Wagner's home, with "Everybody but me wearing spy cameras . . . I'd be in my office and someone would ask 'Where's Jane?' Upstairs working. And then the intercom would come on and you'd hear her saying, 'quick, turn on Oprah, it's about cosmetic surgery.'"

"Yeah, yeah," Tomlin reluctantly agreed, when it was suggested that for writers, all of life can be considered working. "You writers," she teased, "I can understand watching 'America Idol,' but do you have to vote?"

One of America's true idols, Tomlin takes the stage at the Westhampton Beach Performing Art Center on June 24. Call the box office at 288-1500 for ticket information.

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