From very high to very low. Then came Moment by Moment. How did that affect the both of you, because…didn’t Jane write it? [The film was a critical and financial failure.]
Yeah, Jane wrote it and directed it. We were just in severe pain. We really didn’t know we were going to get that killed. John [Travolta] didn’t either—he and I set out on a big promotional tour. We were totally decimated. It was very painful. We had just had a big hit [Appearing Nitely on Broadway].
For which you won a special Tony, right?
Yeah, it was a really huge success artistically and commercially. But that’s what happens, so we just hang in there. I’m much thicker-skinned than Jane, much more resilient in that way. It was really hard on her.
Then back up again with 9 to 5. What do you remember most about making that film?
Jane is from Morristown, Tennessee. And Dolly [Parton] says [imitating Dolly], “We used to go to Morristown to get our teeth fixed.” It’s a real tiny little town, but compared to Sevierville [where Dolly was born], it’s a big town.
It was great fun, naturally. Dolly and Jane [Fonda] and I became friends. My mother lived in Nashville the last several years of her life, and she’d see Dolly on the plane sometimes going back and forth from there to L.A. Mother would say, “Oh, that Dolly is just the sweetest thing. I was trying to get up to go to the restroom, and Dolly said, ‘Lillie Mae, I’ll take you to the restroom.'”
Did your father drink from early on?
He drank, but he was always a really good guy, and he never missed work. He was a hard worker, and he would drink on the week ends. And gambled…I’d go to the track and the bookie joints with my dad and hang with him. My mother didn’t want me to do that, but I liked it. I enjoyed it. I’d book his bets.
Yeah, and then that way you could keep the money for the family?
Yes, for poor mom, yeah. It sounds interesting on the surface, but a child psychologist might say I was colluding with my mother. I didn’t really consult my mother about it. I had to take the risk of doing that. If the horse had won, I would have been in a terrible place. I’d have to tell my dad I lost the ticket or some kind of other lie. I’d be lying from morning to night.
So how long did it take for The Search for Signs to get to Broadway?
We might have started working on it way back in 1984, but when we first started working in earnest, Jane traveled with us every place and actually worked on the play. That started in January of 1985, but we probably worked on it a good year before that on and off…just dribs and drabs.
And you won a Tony for it. That must have been a tremendous feeling to walk up on that stage.
Yeah, it was great. But we really made an effort so that Jane would be acknowledged, because people think I’m as brainy as you could possibly be, because I get credit for every quote she ever wrote.
Even back then, I remember you always gave Jane credit.
I try. Ted Koppel, when he was on the air, he used the cynical line from The Search —”‘No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up,’ as Lily Tomlin says”—at least four or five times in several years. I’d write him and I’d say, “‘As Lily Tomlin says,’ and I did say it, but I didn’t write it.” I said, “Mr. Koppel, that line is from a play written by Jane Wagner and so on.” And he’d do it again in a couple of years. Poor Jane, she’s had to live with that, too. But a failure, she gets nailed with it for sure. So we created the title of the show so that it had to be printed with my name, the title, and her name. Anyway, it was some attempt.
So back in 1972 when you were on Dick Cavett, Chad Everett was also a guest, and he said something like, “I own a dog, a horse, and a wife….” And you walked off the show. What made you do that? [At the time, Tomlin was just completing numerous talk-show appearances promoting her Edith Ann album and her scheduled appearance at Carnegie Hall that week.]
I had had so many experiences on the talk shows with that kind of sexism that I was sort of purged by the time I got to Dick Cavett. So I’d been on Mike Douglas, David Frost …I’d been on most of the shows.
When I was on Mike Douglas, the chief inspector of Scotland Yard was on. He was just a great big old English guy, very comedic in his physicality. Mike asked him if there were any women inspectors. He said [imitating the inspector], “Oh, no, no, and there never shall be.” And I said, “Could we at least hold the possibility open?”
I was on with Carol Channing and Alice Clayton, the Broadway actress. The actor Robert Shaw came on toward the end, after the inspector. Everybody goes on to promote something, [but Shaw was pretending] as if he wasn’t on to promote the play he was appearing in, as if he was above all of us. So that irked me right away. Carol’s very, very smart, but she acts kind of spacey—that’s kind of her persona. Alice Clayton has a very high-pitched little girl’s voice. Carol and Alice were being kind of chattery, and, at some point, he turned around and very condescendingly patted Carol Channing’s hand or shoulder or something and said, “Now calm down, girls, calm down, girls.”
By this time I was just fed up with everything, and forget that later his wife committed suicide, anyway. After the show was off the air, as he got up to leave, he came to shake each one of our hands, and I said, “I’m not shaking your hand.” He went sort of ballistic, and he said, “What’s wrong with you? Have you got sex problems?”
But, anyway, by the time I got to Cavett, my record was expunged. It was like, “OK, that’s about it. I’m not gonna listen to one more thing like this.” So I just got up and left. It was really spontaneous. And when I got backstage, everybody started grabbing on to me saying, “What are you doing? You can’t do that to Chad.”
The English poet W.H. Auden was in the green room, and my manager at that time was a young English woman, who was also in the green room. After I had walked off the show, Chad read a poem that he’d written and was published in Pageant magazine, and he had tears in his eyes to show how much he loved Shelby, his wife. Auden is sitting in the green room like an old stained leather pillow, because he was like [imitating him], “Who are these disgusting people?”
My manager jumped up and said [imitating with English accent], “I’ve never beeeen in such rude company,” and she storms out of the green room. By this time I was up in my dressing room, and I had to wait till the end of the show. And I heard Chad and his manager or somebody go by outside, and they didn’t know I was in there, and I heard Chad say, “I thought she was kidding at first, but if you ask me, she stabbed herself in the back” or something like that.
It was all too comical. I’d see kids on the street and they’d love it, and then they’d say, “My mother said she’s never going to watch you again, Lily, because of what you did to Chad.” It was one of those fun nights.
On to Big Business with Bette Midler. I think I read that the director [Jim Brooks] was always telling you and Bette not to do what y’all were doing.
Yeah, we were being too broad or we were being too this, and finally I said, “Jim, you’ve got to let us do what we do. We’re lost. We’re getting confused about what we’re supposed to do, because we thought we got hired to do what we do.” I don’t know if Bette did, but I had to audition. If I had some business I wanted to do, I had to audition to show what I was going to do. And you know the thing with the snake and the bracelet? [In the film, her character shakes her bracelet and makes snake sounds.] They weren’t going to let me do that. They didn’t like it for some reason. Finally, I begged, “Please let me just do one pickup, one close-up of me doing that with my fingers.” He finally agreed, and it got a big laugh at the dailies from the executives. They just beat it to death—they had me do it about four times in the movie. But we had fun all in all. It wasn’t like a bad shoot or anything.
In 1993 you made And the Band Played On for TV. What do you remember about making that TV film?
Well, I only got that at the last minute, because Whoopi was going to do it and she dropped out, either she got sick or something happened. So they called me maybe 36 hours before and asked me to do it, and I said, “Oh God, I’d love to be in it.”
And you were nominated for an Emmy.
Was I? See, I don’t even know or remember. But I loved being in it. It was great. And I was proud to be in it. I was glad that I got that chance to be in it.
You also narrated The Celluloid Closet. Had you met Vito Russo [the book’s author] before the making…
I knew Rob [Epstein] and Jeffrey [Friedman], the filmmakers, a little bit, but I knew Vito well. Vito wrote part of The Celluloid Closet at one of our houses. If you look in the front of the book, I think Mary Jean [Tomlin’s real name] is acknowledged, among other people, not just me. He needed a place to stay, and we were able to let him stay there, so that was great.
This was before Laugh-In started airing, but had already been taped. So I wasn’t well known. That English girl I told you about, she was friends with Chita Rivera, who was here doing the musical, Bajour. So we went up on The Strip after the show one night for me to be introduced to her. She’s a great person. She’s very New York, and she’s talking real fast, and I heard her say, “my boy dancers.” Well, I was just really rigid in those days. All I had to hear was “boy dancers,” and the back of my hair stands up. I’m ready for a little battle. I kind of check out for a little bit, and all of a sudden I hear her say, “purse nellie.”
I kind of woke up. I said, “What did you say?” And she said, “I don’t know, what did I say?” She’s got that New York accent. And I said, “You said something a minute ago. I want to know what that means.”
Can you imagine? That was so stupid of me. And she says, “I don’t know, what did I say, what did I say?” And she’s looking at Irene and she’s looking at me. I was just pushing her to the wall. And I said, “You said, ‘purse nellie.'”
And she was saying “personally”! I literally rolled on the floor. I was so embarrassed! But it was also so damned funny, I just fell apart. Anyway, when I got home, I called Vito to tell him that story, because I thought it was so funny. Whenever he would write me, after that he’d always sign it “Purse nellie, Vito.”
Then in 1996 you went in to support the cast of Murphy Brown. What do you remember about that? Was that fun?
Yeah, it was totally fun. I really liked having a job like that, because it was a show that ran like clockwork by that time. And the actors were wonderful. I knew Candice [Bergen] and she’s adorable and very sharp.
Here’s a funny thing about Candice. We’d be rehearsing in her dressing room, running lines or something. And I’d see her datebook open, and it would be like…oh, let me try to think of something. It would be like lunch…just say like “lunch with Lucille Ball.” And then it would say like “prepare French country house for the summer.” My datebook would say like “pick up envelopes at Staples.”