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.
He may have asked you that because of the incident on The Dick Cavett Show, where you walked off when Chad Everett referred to his wife as his property. Carson was very smart, you know. He may have been trying to provoke you.
Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. You may be right. But, you know, it was the sort of question everyone asked a woman in those days. Those days—they still do! The last time I was on The View, Barbara said to me, “Now, Lily, we’ve known each other a long time, and you’ve never married. Is that because you just haven’t found the right man?” And I just looked at her and I said, “Oh, Barbara, we have known each other a long time, and we all know that’s not the reason.” And she changed the subject.
Maybe it slipped her mind that she was in the presence of a card-carrying lesbian, and she went to the default question.
Ha! Listen, I just think nobody was ever really interested in my sex life. I may weep.
They generally aren’t interested in people who don’t play the romantic parts. Nobody ever asks me if Drew Carey is gay.
Congratulations, you’re the first. No, but he’s a great guy anyway.
You know, I said nobody was interested, but that’s not true. There were some fans who really wanted me to come out. And some media. Time magazine offered me the cover if I would come out. That was in 1975. I don’t think anybody was coming out yet then, and I frankly was not interested in being typed as the gay celebrity. I think what Ellen did was incredibly brave, and she paid a price for it—and she did it about 20 years after I got that offer.
And you got the cover of Time anyway.
Well, yes, but that’s not the point. [Laughs] I got it later, when I was a bit more mainstream. Although I never was what you would call mainstream. I was doing a live album and I put a joke on it where I was being interviewed and the interviewer said, “We understand you’re going to play a heterosexual in your next film,” and I said something like, “Yes, I think they’re terribly misunderstood. They’re just like the rest of us, really. But it will take a great deal of study.” Something like that. It was my way of dealing with it. At that time.
But you never really, formally, stereophonically came out. I want to make sure I didn’t miss it.
No. We never hid anything and we never denied anything, but we never said anything specific. I referred to Jane a million times as my partner, and people interpreted that as they would.
And after a while…
I guess I was out. There may have been a story in Us Weekly the first time I specifically mentioned Jane in a more defined way, but that’s about it.
And did things change as a result?
By that time, no. The times had changed. And I had been around for all of them! [Laughs] It’s very strange when people ask questions about what it was like back then, because what they don’t get is that, as a society, gay people weren’t out. There was no need unless you were an activist, I mean professionally. There were people who didn’t fake anything privately, you know, like a double life or anything, but your sexuality was not a part of your public profile. And it is all so different from today.
Did you feel pressure as the times changed?
I just assumed everybody knew and it would look a little foolish to make a big deal about it. I mean, how embarrassing, to make a big announcement and have people look at you with that expression that says, “Oh, the poor thing thinks we never knew.” [Laughs]
You’re iconic and never realized it.
I am? Ha! I mean, yes, I am. [Laughs] You’re iconic! No, really, some of my characters are iconic. But me? Edith Ann and Ernestine, there are actually dolls. Now, that’s iconic.
Neither of them ever came out.
I never chose to explore that side of them. [Laughs] That could be Ernestine’s big revival.
Has she gone away?
Never too far. But, you know, the phone company went away and so did much of her power. But she still shows up to comment. You know, she was nominated for an Emmy some years ago.
Did she win?
No, I believe Pavarotti beat her. It was for performing a number from Flashdance on a TV special.
I remember your fairy princess outfit at the Oscars.
Please! It was the Queen of England at a state dinner! Tiara, gloves, a muff. I did that ’cause I went with the Altman crowd [Tomlin was nominated for her first screen appearance, in Robert Altman’s Nashville]. We were having a lot of fun. I didn’t think I would win. Lee Grant won. Had I won, I don’t know what I would have done. I suppose I had a speech. Who knows if I would have been able to do it?
This may be why you’ve never been considered mainstream.
I suppose. Most comic personalities aren’t terribly mainstream, which may be another reason people aren’t all that interested in their private lives. They just want to laugh. They don’t want to fantasize. Isn’t it enough just to laugh? I mean, if the laugh is truthful, it will lead to something else