MIAMI—Lily Tomlin is equally at home performing on film as she is on television. She prefers the stage, where “it’s more personal. It’s in the moment. There’s a real interaction between you and the audience.”
And she speaks as easily about her 36-year partner in life and business, comedy writer Jane Wagner, as she does about her iconic alter egos, Ernestine the telephone operator and 5-year-old Edith Ann.
Thursday night, Tomlin (along with Ernestine, Edith Ann and Co.) appears onstage at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts. After the concert, she’ll have dessert with fans to raise money for the Lily Tomlin Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center in Hollywood, Calif., which is associated with the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Center.
An overnight star since her 1969 TV debut on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” Tomlin says she has “always been very open” about her relationship with Wagner, but that until recently “the press didn’t write about this stuff.”
“In `73, I was on Johnny Carson,” Tomlin recalled of a guest shot with the often-married “Tonight Show” star.
“He was talking about me not being married. Didn’t I want to have children? I said I didn’t care if I had children or not, especially not biological children. The audience gasped. To break the tension, I asked, `Who has custody of yours?’”
In 1975, Tomlin (then co-starring as the mother of two deaf children in Robert Altman’s “Nashville”) got a call from her publicist. “She said, `Time magazine would give you the cover if you come out.’ I was insulted that I would be asked to trade my personal life to get on the cover of Time.”
No, Tomlin told Time. “I was on the cover anyway two years later for my first Broadway show,” she says, still with a bit of satisfaction.
She adds that when Time did run a story about her in `77, the magazine said she lived alone—but Newsweek reported she shared a house with Wagner.
Tomlin first became aware of Wagner after seeing a Peabody-award winning TV movie she had written called “J.T.,” about a Harlem youngster.
“It was essenced. Every line moved the plot forward in a naturalistic way. It was edgy and tender and everything I looked for in a monologue,” Tomlin said. “I was working on my Edith Ann album `And That’s the Truth.’ I wanted her to be more than she was on `Laugh-In,’ sitting on a chair having something smart to say.
“I wrote Jane and asked her to help me. I never heard from her. About five days before I was to record the album, I got a bunch of material from her. It was better than any of the material I had.”
She and Wagner have been together ever since. They live in Los Angeles. Wagner has produced and written most of Tomlin’s solo work, including several TV specials and her 1985 Broadway hit, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” which won Tomlin a Tony and both women Drama Desk awards.
Tomlin and Wagner have won or been nominated for a slew of other honors, including multiple Emmys and American Comedy awards. Tomlin also won a Grammy for her 1971 Ernestine album, “This Is a Recording,” and was Oscar-nominated for “Nashville.”
“Magic is the word to describe Lily,” said “Laugh-In” Executive Producer George Schlatter, who discovered Tomlin. “Total professional. Totally involved. Lily is a totally involved bystander. Lily is not a comic. Lily is an actress who sees life from a strange, bizarre, involved angle.”
Schlatter, who produced “The Judy Garland Show” in 1963, first spotted Tomlin in 1965 at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.
“There was a girl on stage doing a barefoot tap dance. She had taps taped to the bottoms of her feet. She was the cutest person I ever saw. A few years later, we were doing `Laugh-In’ ... Someone sent me a tape of a girl who was a rubber freak. She was hooked on rubber. It was weird and bizarre. I said, who was this girl?”
Then he recognized her as the barefoot tap-dancer. Schlatter hired Tomlin.
The night she taped her first episode, including an Ernestine skit, Schlatter told Tomlin: “‘It will never be the same. Your whole life will change.’
“She came off and everybody in the hall was repeating, `One ringy dingy! Is this the party to whom I am speaking?’”