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The Lily Tomlin continuum
Movie, TV and stage work is all one 'living, live thing'
"I've had a decent movie history, but certainly have not been a movie star, in the sense of ever carrying a picture on my own or anything like that," Lily Tomlin says.

One ringy–dingy, two ringy–dingys, and there’s that voice on the other end of the line. It’s Lily Tomlin, one of the most prolific and honored comedic performers of the last 40 years.

With four Emmy Awards, two Tonys, a Grammy, two Peabodys and an Academy Award nomination (for 1973’s Nashville, her first–ever film), Tomlin certainly doesn’t need another prize on the mantle, but she’s coming to the Savannah Film Festival Nov. 2 to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from SCAD.

She’ll attend a screening of her 1974 movie The Late Show, and afterwards conduct a Q&A with the audience.

Tomlin is one of those entertainers whose career is so prolific, it can’t be re–capped in one or two paragraphs. So let’s just list a few: The movies Nine to Five, Short Cuts, All of Me, Orange County, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, I Heart Huckabees, Flirting With Disaster, A Prairie Home Companion ...

On television: Rowan & Martin’s Laugh–In (birthplace of her beloved characters Ernestine the telephone operator and 5–year–old Edith Ann), Saturday Night Live, Murphy Brown, And the Band Played On, Desperate Housewives, Damages (for which she received yet another Emmy nomination, in 2010), Web Therapy and, of course, The West Wing.

On that seminal TV drama, Tomlin spent four seasons as Debbie Fitterer, personal secretary to Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet (for which she was twice nominated by the Screen Actors Guild).

She also starred in one of the first (and, to date, one of the most critically praised) one–woman Broadway shows, The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

The Search was written by Tomlin’s longtime personal and producing partner, Jane Wagner, who has family in Savannah. Tomlin herself has never been here, so the week will a treat for them both.

In our telephone interview, Tomlin was – as always – funny, serious, patient and passionate. It only took a minute to fall under that famous spell.

And that’s the truth.

I counted three Robert Altman movies in your filmography, but I always thought you’d done more with him. What was it about Altman that kept you going back?

Lily Tomlin: I did a bit in The Player, but it was probably uncredited. And Bob produced The Late Show, but Bob Benton directed it. I would have been in Pret–a–Porter, but I backed out of it because I was working on another project.

And, of course, it was silence for two years – if you’re not there for Bob (laughing) ... well, that’s how I always felt.

But it didn’t matter, because he was like the Great Benign Patriarch and we all adored him. It didn’t matter what he did, he was so damned human, and real. And just Bob. You felt like you had been a bad kid in the family – “Oh God, why didn’t I do better?” I’d have to eat in the kitchen instead of the dining room.

I was just bereft when he died. And he was preparing his next movie, too, Hands on a Hard Body. Meryl was going to be in it, and I’m pretty sure I was gonna be in it too. In fact, she just had lunch with him that week.

You got an Oscar nomination for Nashville, your first film, and then did several TV specials and guest appearances. I’ve always admired the fact that you’ve been able to go back and forth between film and television, never turning your back on one or the other.

Lily Tomlin: I’ve had a decent movie history, but certainly have not been a movie star, in the sense of ever carrying a picture on my own or anything like that. After Nashville and The Late Show I also had failures, but that’s the way it goes.

I also love the stage. I thought as an actor, you’d want to do everything.

Are you critical of your work, or once something’s done do you forget about it and move on to the next project?

Lily Tomlin: I’m not critical of something I didn’t do – that leaves my mind. But yeah, I’m critical of the work at first. I mean, I haven’t looked at a lot of films in a long time, and maybe I’d cringe if I did. I’m probably more critical of stuff I do on my own. When I was younger and starting out, everything was critical.

You’re always referred to as a writer/actor/comedian .... but I can’t really remember you as a standup. What you’ve done onstage and TV has always been very different from that, very character–driven. Were you ever a standup comedian?

Lily Tomlin: First of all, I’m not that good a writer. I mean, I can make up stuff, or conceptualize stuff, I’m fairly decent at that. But Jane is really the writer. If I had a million monkeys in the room with me, we wouldn’t come up with The Search.

No, I never thought of one thing or the other. To me it’s like one continuum. I still do concerts all the time, I do 30 or 40 a year, and it’s kind of my form of standup. But it’s always been the same – I do characters, I talk, I do first–person. If I’m not doing a strict theater piece I don’t observe the fourth wall.

One night I was doing The Search ... and because of the nature of what I do, a lot of deaf people would come, and a lot of blind people. The physical thing carried on for the people who were deaf, and my voice carried on enough for the people who were blind. Anyway, there were a bunch of people there with seeing–eye dogs, and they set up a big howl. I mean big, like “WOOOOOOOOO.” You don’t keep trying to go through that.

I kicked my shoe off into the audience. To me, it’s a living, live thing. You just do it. You go with whatever happens, and talk about it.

I first saw you, with David Steinberg, on the ABC show The Music Scene back in ’69.

Lily Tomlin: I chose it over Laugh–In because it was hip, and Laugh–In was square, Laugh–In was accepted, and the status quo. So I thought “Well, I don’t want to be on that, I want to be on Music Scene.”

And it lasted what, about six months?

Lily Tomlin: (laughs) Yeah, half a season.

In your concerts now, do you still do the characters? Do you still do Ernestine?

Lily Tomlin: Yeah, but I keep the characters current. Ernestine’s most recent job is working at a health care corporation, denying health care to everyone. She’s had lots of great jobs. During the whole Bush regime, she had a webcast chat show. She could see them on the webcam. That show was called Ernestine Calls You On It, And You Better Have an Answer. She had a great time all through the Bush era, because she could call everybody, Cheney and Rumsfeld. She’d try to broker peace, but she’d try to nail ‘em really good, you know?

Does Jane write all that stuff?

Lily Tomlin: Not a lot of that topical stuff; that stuff just grows like topsy or something. Jane can write funny as heck. Witness The Search, it’s filled with timeless humor, really. And great lines.

When The Search came out in the ‘80s, Ted Koppel must’ve used the “cynical” line – “These days, no matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up” – five or six times on Nightline over the years. And every time he’d say “And as Lily Tomlin says ...” I’d have to write him and say “I didn’t say that – I mean, I did say it, but Jane wrote it.”

I loved The West Wing. Tell me about the experience of working on that show – was Aaron Sorkin already gone by the time you came in?

Lily Tomlin: No, he was there that whole first season; that was why my character was so good. He invented that character. I didn’t have to do anything but show up. When somebody is an alpaca farmer, and a professional gambler, and works at the White House and has an impressive resume, you just show up. They laid all that out for her, and imbued her with just a load of interest.

I lobbied to get on the show. The writing was evident, and the actors, and when that thing came on the air I said “How can I not be on this show? I don’t get it.” I was gnashing my teeth, because it was about something, it was wonderful.

You get embarrassed because you think you’ll get kicked out, but I finally asked them “Could I get a guest shot on the show?” I thought maybe I’d get a lobbyist or something. And do a couple of episodes or whatever.

Kathryn Jooston, who played Mrs. Landingham, is a good friend of mine. I just saw her last night, as a matter of fact.

Her character, you know, died in the car wreck. I had already made contact with them, and I know that no way in the world did they get rid of Mrs. Landingham because of me! Because I didn’t even go on the air for another whole year. It wasn’t me, I’m not responsible. I didn’t say “Get rid of the Landingham woman, I’m on all pistons right now.”

Lily Tomlin

Wednesday, Nov. 2

Trustees Theater

2:30 p.m.: Screening: “The Late Show,” followed by a Q&A

7 p.m.: Lily Tomlin Tribute precedes the screening of “A Dangerous Method”