The Kennedy Center

Lily Tomlin


(Actress, comedian, writer and producer born September 1, 1939 in Detroit, Michigan) Lily Tomlin has been a storyteller and innovator for more than four decades. Throughout her extraordinary career, she has ventured across an ever-widening range of media, starring in television, theater, film, animation and recordings. Richard Pryor called her a "national treasure—I'd drop anything, anywhere, to work with her."

Mary Jean Tomlin was born in Detroit, Michigan of Kentucky parents and grew up in a working-class neighborhood with a predominantly black population. "That old apartment house I grew up in was filled with the most eccentric cross section of culture types imaginable and I was madly in love with all of them," said Tomlin. "Every apartment was a different class, a different story, a different accent, different politics and philosophy." She meandered from apartment to apartment observing the habits of whomever she was with, a skill that serves her to this day. Her favorite funny women on television included Lucille Ball, Bea Lillie, Imogene Coca and Jean Carroll. She 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. In 1965, she moved to New York and worked as a waitress, but soon built a strong following with her appearances at landmark clubs such as The Improv, The Bitter End and Upstairs at the Downstairs.

Tomlin's New York success led to her television debut in 1966 on The Garry Moore Show. Memorable appearances on The Merv Griffin Show inspired a move to California where producer George Schlatter (whom Tomlin credits with being the first producer who understood her) invited Tomlin to join the cast of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in 1969 where she rapidly rose to prominence with her characterizations of Ernestine, the power-mad telephone operator, and the philosophical six year old in the big rocking chair, Edith Ann, "No sooner did I learn to tell time than I began showing up late everywhere."

When Tomlin left Laugh-In, she went on to produce, with writer Jane Wagner, and star in her own Emmy Award winning comedy television specials. "I'm happiest on stage as there's nothing like live performance, but I'm also grateful to be able to work in film and television as often as I do," she said. Tomlin has guest starred on numerous television shows, including The Carol Burnett Show, Homicide, X-Files, Will and Grace, Desperate Housewives, NCIS, Eastbound and Down, Damages, and Sesame Street. She starred in And the Band Played On, the HBO special about the AIDS epidemic, played the boss on Murphy Brown, and reigned as President Bartlett's memorable assistant, Debbie Fiderer, on The West Wing. She also gives voice to the science teacher Ms. Frizzle on the popular children's animated series, The Magic School Bus. Tomlin can be seen in her fourth season on the Showtime series, Web Therapy, as Lisa Kudrow's narcissistic mother, and next year will be co-starring with Jane Fonda in a new Netflix series, Grace and Frankie.

Tomlin made her Broadway debut in Jane Wagner's, Appearing Nitely (1977), in which she introduced Trudy the homeless woman among other characters. Tomlin next appeared on Broadway in Wagner's critically acclaimed The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1985). "I look at Lily up there on stage and I wonder how she does it," said Wagner. "But when I write it, I know she can do it. It's a writer's dream to have someone like Lily who can bring such depth to your work."

Tomlin's films include her Oscar-nominated debut as Linnea in Robert Altman's Nashville, 9 to 5 with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, The Late Show, Beverly Hillbillies, All of Me with Steve Martin, Disney's The Kid with Bruce Willis, Big Business and Short Cuts with Tom Waits, to the more recent David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees with Dustin Hoffman, Prairie Home Companion with Meryl Streep and Admission with Tina Fey. "I was so star-struck to be meeting her, said Fey, "let alone trying to act opposite her".

In November 2009, Tomlin debuted in her live show, Not Playing with a Full Deck, at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. She continues to make appearances around the country and has created an educational game app for kids, City Adventures of Edith Ann, based on her beloved character. As part of her work as an animal activist, she narrated and co- exec-produced the HBO special, An Apology to Elephants, written by Wagner, documenting the mistreatment of elephants around the world. Though Tomlin has quipped "The road to success is always under construction," she is the recipient of numerous honors, including the 2003 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, seven Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards, a Grammy, and two Peabody Awards, one for narrating and co-executive producing The Celluloid Closet, based on Vito Russo's book of the same name about the history of gays and lesbians in film, and one for producing and enacting the title role in Edith Ann's Christmas: Just Say Noel, written by Wagner. After a relationship of 43 years, Tomlin married her partner, Jane Wagner on New Year's Eve 2013.

From Ernestine and Edith Ann to Vegas headliner, Tommy Velour, soul singer, Purvis Hawkins, homeless Trudy, Madame Lupe, the world's oldest living beauty expert, Susie Sorority, Lucille the Rubber Freak and Lud and Marie, Lily Tomlin shares a part of herself with every character she creates. "I love all my characters. They are all part of a mosaic," said Tomlin, "and there is always some part of them that lives in my heart." She has touched a huge cross section of people with her work, delighting us with her sophisticated wit and keen insight into human nature.
Lily Tomlin