Lord knows Lily Tomlin has heard it before. The less time wasted making "One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy" references while you've actually got her on the phone, the more time there is to discuss the kaleidoscope of characters she's inhabited during her celebrated career as comedienne and actress. The source of that "ringy-dingy" bit — Ernestine the meddlesome phone operator — is the character for which she's most famous. Edith Ann the know-it-all 5-and-a-half-year-old is a close second.
But Tomlin and her partner, the writer Jane Wagner, have cooked up loads more colorful, strikingly well-rounded roles — such as Sister Boogie Woman, a 77-year-old blues revivalist, Tommy Velour, a slick, Wayne Newton-style Vegas lounge singer, and Trudy the UFO-spotting Bag Lady. Of course, Tomlin plays well with others too. Maybe you've caught her on The West Wing, Desperate Housewives or some other primetime show. Or perhaps you saw her sticking it to the chauvinistic man with Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda in 9 to 5, holding her own alongside an eccentric Dustin Hoffman in I Heart Huckabees, or taking her very first dramatic turn as a gospel singer with deaf children in Robert Altman's classic Nashville.
And that's hardly her only tie to this town. Her brother lives here, and she's returned for many visits over the years. Plus she got her start on the groundbreaking sketch-comedy show Laugh-In, without which Hee Haw would probably never have existed.
It's a safe bet Tomlin won't say anything during her Sunday night Schermerhorn performance for which she'll need to swing back through town on an apology tour. Her comedy seizes on humanity's more ridiculous traits — the complex quirks of complex personalities — but she plunges herself into her characters without a mean-spirited bone in her body. When the Scene spoke with her by phone, she was happy to talk about why she's done what she's done the way she's done it, and quick to laugh or to lapse into character voices when the occasion merits.
You did your first film here.
I did. Absolutely my first movie.
I read you weren't sure whether the gospel singer part you were given was a good fit. Why was that?
There were parts in the movie that I thought, 'Oh, I'd be better at that.' Then when everybody started coming into Nashville that week we started and I saw how brilliant Bob Altman was in the casting, I thought, 'This must be the best part for me! He sees something that I'm not even conscious of.'
How did you prepare for that first dramatic role?
I mean, I had the children [from the movie] — the children who were deaf, who were supposed to be my own — I spent a lot of time with the boy's mother. And my family's Southern. They're from Kentucky. So I didn't have to go very far. I mean, it was a perfect fit for me, really, because that kind of middle society — not that my family was [middle society]. They were all farmers and everything. Nonetheless, I just know that culture fairly well, because I spent every summer of the first 20 years of my life, every summer I was in Kentucky with aunts and uncles and my grandmother. Then the rest of the year I was in inner-city Detroit. So I was highly experienced in the world of humanity.
That's a pretty unique range of experience.
I mean, the old apartment house I grew up in, there was every kind of humanity you could think of. There were educated professional people who were old now and couldn't move, because they were on a fixed income. And then my mother and dad come up from the South, and all the other Southerners that lived in that building because they all came to work in the factories. Anyway, a lot of stuff. And I wouldn't trade it for anything. It was a glorious childhood.
Once you were through filming Nashville, how did the finished product strike you?
Listen, being sensitive about Southerners anyway, and knowing how sensitive they can be — and Bob had gotten every civic leader and person there in Nashville to be in the movie ...
I saw Ralph Emery in the Opry segment.
We'd go and watch dailies every night as a company. After I started coming a few days, I said, "Bob, I hope we get out of town before they see this movie. They're not going to be pleased at all." [laughing] I came back 20 years later or more for a screening, and it was another generation. They had a different perspective.
You've done a lot of music-related characters over the years. Besides that movie, there's Agnes Angst and Sister Boogie Woman ...
I have done Pervis Hawkins and Tommy Velour. In '73 in one of my specials, I did the queen of country music, Wanda B. Wilfred, because I was so crazy about Loretta Lynn. Because I was seeing that crossover starting from country music, from that real, authentic country music more to slicker pop mainstream. I was really grieving over that loss, because we lose those culture types. And Loretta Lynn, to me as an outsider, she seemed guileless, authentic.
I saw footage of a Tommy Velour bit, complete with sideburns and chest hair, where you were performing to Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson in the front row.
[laughing] That was on her 60th birthday.
Last year Lady Gaga performed in drag on the MTV Music Awards, and everyone reacted to it as though it was a very provocative thing to do. But you did that kind of thing well before.
The day after that the special aired, I think. I mean, Elizabeth Taylor was a separate deal. I did a special in '81 or '82 and Tommy was a headliner in Vegas. The show was called Lily Sold Out. ... Tommy Velour, so that show goes on the air, and the next morning I'm at the cleaners, and they say, "Oh, your special was so good last night." Then someone says, "But who's that guy on the show?" [laughing] And I think, "How can they not see that it's me?" I don't wear prosthetics.
There's obviously something of you in the way the character moves and sounds.
That's sort of the pleasure of it, is not to put on a different nose and a chin and all that stuff. So when they say, "Who is that guy on the show? Why would he even be on the show? He doesn't have any talent. He's not a good singer. Nothing!" I say, "Well, that was me." And you can see they're just like taken aback. [laughing] Another time I was working on Pervis Hawkins.
The soul singer.
I had on Pervis's Afro, that little short tight Afro, because I was over at the wig makers working on his look. So I just left the Afro on. I didn't have any facial hair. And they didn't know I was coming to look for some offices or something for the show. And as soon as I walked in, they just act like it's normal. They say, "Oh, hi, Lily." I'm standing there with that little short Afro on. Because over time, I guess people accepted that it could be me.
I love that immersive, throw-yourself-into-it sort of thing you do. How'd you come to make physical comedy a central part of your approach to characters?
Well, I loved character all my life, from living in that old building and having relatives who'd sit around. You know how southerners mock each other. I'd sit at the dinner table with my aunts and uncles and oh, they've got something to say about somebody. Mock their brother or their father or their husband or their wife. And then that old apartment house. And I grew up on radio. We didn't get a TV until I was 10. I mean, I saw TV at neighbor's houses, but we didn't have a TV ourselves.
So I just love character. I love [the radio comedy] Life with Luigi. I loved accents. Everything. It just delighted me. Then when we got television and I see people like Lucy. I'd see Beatrice Lillie on Ed Sullivan. And that was a whole other sensibility. Don't get me started. I get more excited as I talk. So let me slow down.
One of the characters people ask you about the most is Ernestine the phone operator, because it's one of your most enduring, dating back to at least The Merv Griffin Show. I hear she's moved on to the health care field. That's a topic that has a different weight to it than the phone company, as infuriating as phone service might have been in the '70s.
She's had lots of new jobs. I mean, she also had a webcast, reality-based chat show. Ernestine calls you on it, and you'd better have an answer. This was all during the Bush administration, and she calls President Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Condi Rice. Before the Iraq war broke out, she even brokered a conference call between George and Cheney and Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein. ... And she could walk both sides of the street. She'd out and out slam the president's administration, or she'd try to give George a pep talk and have the same effect. She'd say things like, 'You don't have to worry about Senator Kerry. He only fought in a war. You actually started one.'
What, for you, is the right balance between conscientiousness and the entertainment factor?
Well, it's gotta make at least half of the audience laugh. [laughing]
Well, I forget that everybody is not on what I consider to be the humane side of life. I'm sure they think they are too, the ones who aren't on my humane side. I don't want to do anything that's divisive. I want people to come together through some kind of familiarity, some kind of common sensibility. You have to find a way to do it that doesn't decimate another group. You might be heavy-handed with a political individual, especially if they're hypocritical. ... I just do what I enjoy. I trust my own sense of, I guess, decency. I mean, not everybody's gonna like it or like me or anything else. I do what I think affirms the audience and me, and I want them to be more humane, be more empathetic.
Something else I think is admirable about your career is that you and your partner Jane Wagner, who's written so much of your material, have had the mainstream cultural impact you've had from the 1970s on without ever really being closeted. To your knowledge, did that ever have any effect on roles you were offered?
Well, it might've, but I wouldn't have known, really. Because I was more eccentric as an actress. I mean, I very seldom got a dramatic part, so forget that. Eventually I did. And I wasn't really a leading lady. I mean, I've starred in films, you know, when I was younger. But I was always considered eccentric and comedic. I had a meeting once with the head of Screen Gems, which is years ago. I was about 18. They were casting Gidget. [laughing] ...Do you know who Nancy Walker is?
I'm not sure.
She was a comedienne and made movies and did all kinds of stuff. She was not very tall. She was very comedic looking, let me say it that way. She had kind of a large face. Her body was like a little banty rooster kind of. I mean, short-limbed. ...Always played waitresses and kind of tough, because she had a jaw and stuff like that. But she was wonderfully talented. She was on Broadway a lot. I'm only telling you this as a preamble. At the time, I was a kid. I was 18 or something. And I looked really young, and I was really kind of pretty in many ways. It's not like I'm really overtly comedic, unless I'm doing something. So she says to me, "You know, Lily, someday there'll be parts for girls like you and me." [laughing]
What did you make of that?
People always said to me, "Do you know who Mildred Natwick is?" And I'd say, "Yeah. She's a brilliant comedic actress." And at that time, I was probably 20, and she was 55 or 60, or 50 at least. They'd say, "Someday you're gonna get Mildred Natwick's parts." And I said, "Well, I can't even consider waiting that long." I always created stuff for myself anyway to have a place to do something. Plus it was my inclination anyway to make stuff and do it that way.
So [Jane and I] mostly did so much stuff for ourselves out of necessity, you know. They say necessity is the mother. So it never occurred to me if I wasn't getting something or not. I was more eager to do my own work anyway at that point.
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