She's won a Grammy, two Tony awards, six Emmies, and been nominated for the Golden Globes and Oscars - there is no medium in which Lily Tomlin has not distinguished herself as comedienne and actress. Though many of the comic characters she created grew out of her Detroit working class background in the 1940s and '50s, Mary Jean (later 'Lily') had no show business aspirations.
She began earning her own money from age seven and continued to work throughout childhood. Her parents never even tried to control her; they knew she wasn't wild-- just independent. Good in science, she was a pre-med student at Wayne State University. Theatre electives, plus public response at a restaurant job where she became known by customers as the waitress with hilarious repartee, caused a change in direction. In 1960, she moved to New York City. Waitressing at the Times Square HoJo's, she earned fame of sorts when people noticed her comments broadcast over the microphone.
Gigs at Cafe Au Go-Go and the Improvisation followed, and her act was modeled on the great comic monologist Ruth Draper, who influenced Lily Tomlin's other idols, Lucille Ball, Imogene Coca, and Jean Carroll. Her appearances at nightclubs were parlayed to TV appearances on the Garry Moore Show and Merv Griffin. True and lasting fame came in 1970 when Rowan and Martin chose her as a regular for their groundbreaking TV show, Laugh-In, for which she won an Emmy. The entire country knew precocious kindergartner Edith Ann, the Tasteful Woman, Ernestine the switchboard operator and other Lily characterizations. In 1971, her comedy album 'This Is A Recording' earned a Grammy, and after Laugh-In, Lily was offered her own TV specials - she had six in all! - winning more Emmies.
In a surprise career move, Lily Tomlin became a dramatic actress in Robert Altman's 1975 film 'Nashville,' which earned her an Oscar nomination. She was not a conventional leading lady, however, and most of her films have been comedies, notably 'Nine to Five' in 1980, 'All of Me' in 1984, and 'Big Business' in 1988. Woven around TV and movies were her one-woman shows on Broadway, 1977's 'Appearing Nitely' and 1986's 'The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.' These were collaborations with Lily's life partner Jane Wagner, and both productions won Tony Awards for both women.
Fans never know what to expect next from Lily's renowned versatility, though she and her characters continue to tour, selling out tickets wherever 'they' go. She's added on personages too, such as Crystal the hang-gliding quadriplegic, and Sister Boogie Woman, the 77-year old blues singer. For three years, she played a very funny deadpan, unsympathetic producer on TV's Murphy Brown and more recently, created the role of Presidential assistant Debbie Fiderer on The West Wing. She's the voice of teacher Ms. Frizzle on the children's animated show 'The Magic School Bus,' for which she won another Emmy. For her enormous body of work and for the provocative, intelligent quality of her work, Lily Tomlin was honored at the Kennedy Center with the Mark Twain Prize for humor in 2003. This great performer will keep audiences laughing and thinking for many years to come.