Who Is Lily Tomlin?

Some of the wacky characters that Lily Tomlin created were showcased on the hit comedy series Laugh-In, which ran from 1969 to 1973, and the show catapulted her to stardom. Tomlin went on to appear in dramatic and comedic films, including Nashville and Nine to Five. In 1985, the comedian/actress won a Tony Award for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, her one-woman Broadway show. Her recent work includes her Emmy-nominated role on the TV series Grace and Frankie, starring opposite Jane Fonda.

Early Years

Famed comedian, actress and writer Lily Tomlin was born Mary Jean Tomlin on September 1, 1939, in Detroit, Michigan, to parents Guy and Lillie Mae Tomlin. The Tomlins had relocated to Michigan from Kentucky just prior to their daughter's birth. Tomlin has one sibling, a younger brother named Richard.

As a child, Tomlin admired pioneering female comedians including Lucille Ball, Bea Lillie, Imogene Coca and Jean Carroll. After high school, she didn't immediately follow a career in show business, but instead enrolled at Wayne State University to study medicine. While at Wayne State, she took theater arts classes, which inspired her to leave college and start performing at local coffeehouses. In 1965, she moved to New York City and began performing at clubs including the Improv, Cafe Au Go Go, the Upstairs at the Downstairs and the Downstairs Room, where she opened for legendary singer Mabel Mercer.

'The Merv Griffin Show' to 'Laugh-In'

Tomlin made her television debut on The Garry Moore Show in 1966. She made appearances on The Merv Griffin Show and was a regular on Music Scene. In 1969, she joined the cast of Laugh-In, which catapulted her to stardom. Audiences fell in love with the hilarious characters she created including Edith Ann, a mischievous 6-year-old, and snarky telephone operator Ernestine. Tomlin appeared on the show until it went off the air in 1973.

After her successful run on Laugh-In, Tomlin went on to star in six television comedy specials that she co-wrote with Jane Wagner. Tomlin and Wagner met in 1971 when Tomlin was looking for a writer to help her develop the character of Edith Ann. They felt an immediate connection, both professional and personal, and became a couple.

'Nashville' and Other Big-Screen Hits

Tomlin made her film debut in Robert Altman's Nashville (1975). Her performance as a gospel singer and mother of two deaf children earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.

Subsequent films included The Late Show (1977) with Art Carney; Moment By Moment (1978) with John Travolta and written by Wagner; Nine to Five (1980) with Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda; The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) with Charles Grodin and written by Wagner; All of Me (1984) with Steve Martin, Big Business (1988) with Bette Midler; Shadows and Fog directed by Woody Allen (1993); Short Cuts (1993) directed by Altman; Flirting with Disaster with Ben Stiller (1996); and Tea With Mussolini with Judi Dench and Cher and directed by Franco Zeffirelli (1999).

Following a break from the big screen, Tomlin resurfaced with I Heart Huckabees (2004) with Dustin Hoffman and directed by David O. Russell, and A Prairie Home Companion (2006) which reunited Tomlin with Altman for his last film. She also starred in Pink Panther II (2009) with Martin, Admission (2013) with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd and Grandma (2015) directed by Paul Weitz.

Theater Roles

While appearing on the big screen, Tomlin made her Broadway debut in Appearing Nitely (1977), which was written and directed by Wagner. The show incorporated favorite Tomlin roles including Ernestine and housewife Judith Beasley, and introduced new characters such as Trudy the bag lady, Rick the singles bar cruiser and Sister Boogie Woman, a 77-year-old blues revivalist.

Tomlin returned to Broadway in 1985 and won a Tony Award for her performance in the one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was written by Wagner. After a year-long run on Broadway, the show toured the country, was made into a 1991 film and revived on Broadway in 2000.

'And the Band Played On' and Later Work

In 1993, Tomlin continued her work in television, appearing in the HBO special And the Band Played On about the AIDS epidemic. She has guest starred in numerous TV shows as well, including Frasier, X-Files, Homicide: Life on the Street, Desperate Housewives, Will & Grace, NCIS and Eastbound and Down. She has also portrayed Murphy's boss on Murphy Brown; President Bartlett’s assistant, Debbie Fiderer, on The West Wing; the matriarch in Damages, a role which earned her an Emmy nod among a slew of previous nominations and wins; and the narcissistic mother of Lisa Kudrow's character on Web Therapy.

Tomlin has also done voiceover work for several projects, including playing science teacher Ms. Frizzle on the popular animated TV series The Magic School Bus, for which she earned a Daytime Emmy; Tammy in "The Last of the Red Hat Mamas" episode of The Simpsons; and the character Mommo in the animated feature film The Ant Bully (2006).

'Grace and Frankie'

In 2015, Tomlin starred with Fonda in the series Grace and Frankie, in which they play two women whose lives are rocked after their husbands fall in love. Tomlin received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her performance. She also received two Golden Globe nominations — one for her role on Grace and the other for the big-screen outing Grandma.

Personal Life and Wife

In August 2013, it was reported that Tomlin and Wagner might marry after 42 years together, an announcement that came soon after the federal ruling in support of same-sex marriage, deeming the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and striking down Proposition 8.

On New Year's Eve 2014, 74-year-old Tomlin and 78-year-old Wagner made it official when they were married in a private ceremony in Los Angeles, California.

Appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in January 2019, Tomlin revealed that she had received an offer to "come out" on the cover of Time magazine in 1975, before ultimately declining. "I just decided that I wasn't going to play their game," Tomlin explained. "I wanted to be recognized for my performance."

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  • Name: Mary Jean Tomlin
  • Birth Year: 1939
  • Birth date: September 1, 1939
  • Birth State: Michigan
  • Birth City: Detroit
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Female
  • Best Known For: Lily Tomlin is an actress and comedy legend known for roles on television shows such as 'Laugh-In' and 'Grace and Frankie,' and films such as 'Nashville' and 'Nine to Five.'
  • Industries
    • Theater and Dance
    • Drama
    • Television
    • Comedy
  • Astrological Sign: Virgo

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  • Article Title: Lily Tomlin Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/actors/lily-tomlin
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: July 28, 2020
  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014


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