BY Bruce Vilanch
November 10 2009 7:00 AM ET
Turns out 1939 was the watershed year of the last century after all. So many things that are still relevant today started out then—television sets were first displayed at the New York World’s Fair, and they still haven’t been turned off; Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were brand-new movies, and we have never stopped watching them; and Lily Tomlin was born, and she endures as a beloved comedy icon.
Yes, Tomlin is 70. If you first encountered her 40 years ago, in 1969, when she marched her parade of characters down Main Street as a regular on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, you probably remember how hip she was. If you first encountered her last season as a self-styled private detective and con artist on Desperate Housewives, you probably remember how hip she is. She’s never gone out of style, but that may be because she has, in her own words, never been mainstream.
Tomlin has always known where the edge is and has straddled it brilliantly. Because of this, her sexuality always hovered just under America’s gaydar. Never cast as the romantic leading lady, she never stirred prurient interest, on-screen or off. Nevertheless, as the feminist movement took hold and the AIDS epidemic solidified the gay political base, out lesbians began making noise that Tomlin, whose multi-decade relationship with the writer-director Jane Wagner was an open secret, should declare herself in the fashion of celebrities years younger. She didn’t, choosing instead to make casual references to her time-honored romance as if it was the most normal thing in the world, which, in fact, it is. She and Wagner share one of the longest-running professional and personal partnerships in show business—even Metro, Goldwyn, and Mayer stopped speaking after a few years. These women’s highly civil union survived the stunning success of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which had two critically acclaimed runs on Broadway 14 years apart, and the numbing failure of Moment by Moment, a soapy drama in which Tomlin lapsed into early cougardom, chasing John Travolta down the beach at Malibu. Both were written and directed by Wagner. At the time of this interview, they are plotting to conquer Las Vegas (her show Not Playing With a Full Deck has a limited engagement in mid November), which, for edge-straddlers like these two, may be the final frontier.
I didn’t notice fireworks on your 70th birthday.
It rained. It happened very quietly. I’ve been celebrating with naps. There’s been a lot of travel lately. I’ve been back and forth to New York shooting the new season of Damages. I have been mad for that show since it went on.
Is your character good or bad?
That’s what I love about the show. Who can tell? I mean, the entire show is a gray area. Everybody is capable of everything.
So age isn’t something you dwell on?
It’s something my trainer dwells on. I try to keep myself in shape and I schedule these hours, but I can get through about half an hour now, and then I throw my arms up, which is not part of the training. And the trainer, well, you know how they are. They shame you.
And you keep working.
Interesting things keep coming along. And I have this storehouse of characters I can always bring out. Every day now is a negotiation with Jane to get her to write me another Broadway show. Once you’ve done one of those things it’s difficult to do a play where you’re just one character. And I love getting up onstage.
Your partnership with Jane is so well established, yet you’ve never come out in the grand sense.
There never seemed to be a need. I mean, people weren’t clamoring to know. At the beginning it was something that no one did. Of course, being a woman, it was a little different. In 1973, I was on The Tonight Show and Johnny Carson said, “You’re very attractive, yet you’ve never married.” And I said, “Well, you’ve done it a few times—how is it working out?” and he ran with that, you know, because it was a funny thing about him.