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Lily Tomlin: A test of character

With a new movie of her one-woman show, the comedian returns to the public eye

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It’s a new twist on an old story for Lily Tomlin. ”I was raised in the Baptist church,” she tells me. ”And every Sunday I’d sit in the kitchen with my dad, trying to get him to go to church.” We’re in the back room of a Mexican restaurant not far from the Hollywood studios where The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the film adaptation of her one-woman play of the same name, was shot. ”My dad’s smokin’ some old Luckys, you know, drinkin’ a beer. Sayin’, ‘Aw, babe, don’t worry about the old man.’ ” She laughs — a sound of sweet discovery — at her imitation. She still has the best 10,000-watt smile around.

”I’d say to my Sunday-school teacher, ‘What if my father doesn’t go to heaven? How could I be happy there?’ And she’d say, ‘Whatever you need to be happy will be in heaven.’

”So years lateruld tell interviewers — this was when I was still on Laugh-In, and I was still so popular, because of Ernestine — that I wasn’t worried, ’cause I’d know there’d be some people sitting up there in heaven, saying, ‘I wish that girl that used to be Ernestine was up here, and give us a good show.’ ” She laughs delightedly. ”And I figured I had my way up there insured. But now,” Tomlin says, and this is the twist, ”my TVQ has dropped, so I may not make it.” The look on her face is complicated, both mocking the idea and fearing it.

”Lily loves opening nights and all that, and I don’t like it at all,” Jane Wagner, 56, says of Tomlin, who, at the height of her Laugh-In fame, saw a TV movie Wagner had written and sought out her writing aid, beginning a collaboration in work and life that has lasted two decades. ”I’ve always accused her of being like Margaret Thatcher — she really gets an adrenaline rush from being in the public eye. Lily’s never denied it.”

Yet at 52, Tomlin has been out of public sight, if not out of mind, for quite a while. For 15 years, she endeared herself to millions, beginning with her revelatory early-’70s appearances on Laugh-In as Ernestine, the power-mad telephone operator, and 5-year-old Edith Ann. Not long afterward, there was an Oscar nomination for Nashville (1975) and a Broadway debut (1977) in the Wagner-written Appearing Nitely, which won her a special Tony and landed her on the cover of Time. Then came a two-year downturn, triggered by her biggest flop, the Wagner-directed Moment by Moment (1978), a love story she starred in with John Travolta. But she bounced back with the hit comedy 9 to 5 (1980) and All of Me (1984), her remarkable pairing with Steve Martin, as well as a number of Emmy-winning TV specials.

She reached an apotheosis of sorts with The Search, which opened on Broadway in 1985. The tour de force starred Tomlin as Trudy the bag lady and 11 other female and male characters — ranging from a trio of feminists to a male bodybuilder to a lonely rich woman — into whose minds and bodies Trudy’s out-of-kilter soul strayed. It was Tomlin’s greatest vehicle.

And Wagner’s. Her trenchant but insistently hopeful aphoristic text (”What is reality anyway? Nothin’ but a collective hunch.”) continued the momentum of the antiwar and women’s movements by speaking of the mysterious connections that tied us all together. The play was a critical and popular triumph, running 406 performances on Broadway and earning Tomlin another Tony. She toured the country with it successfully for four years. Meanwhile, however, The Search lost some of its precious edge. By decade’s end, Iran-contra was the only connection anybody talked about, and Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko seemed the face of the times. Lily Tomlin, having failed to top her last success quickly enough, faded from the collective consciousness.

The Search, the movie brings her back, but in curiously diminished form. Unlike the big-budget studio films of Tomlin’s heyday, The Search has been relegated to the art-house circuit. In return for helping to defray the $2 million-plus budget, Showtime shares in the picture’s profits — as does distributor Orion Classics — and grabs it for an exclusive cable run once it’s out of the theaters but before it comes out on video. How do you make a movie for $2 million these days? ”Well, you don’t pay the writer,” Tomlin says. ”You don’t pay the actor.”

Can this material resonate for today’s audiences? Memories are short, God knows, and Wagner’s darts, though razor sharp, hit a target that was moving fast. There’s a chance younger moviegoers will simply shake their heads in bewilderment at references to punk and women’s lib. And a key part of the play was the awe-inspiring communion that sprang up between Tomlin and her audiences, a unique give-and-take that spoke of the heart of her generous talent. ”If I played it well,” she says, speaking of the show’s long tour, ”there would be this kind of collective rush at the end. I could feel it almost every night.” Whatever its artistic successes, the film can only present Tomlin as a giant talking head. In a strange way the movie tantalizes us with the absence of Tomlin herself, perhaps one of the warmest performers in modern times.

”As I read the reviews, I realize that time span may have been detrimental to the project,” says Steven Hewitt, who was the executive in charge of Tomlin’s CBS specials, and who, as senior vice president of original programming and production for Showtime, was one of the prime movers in making The Search happen as a film.

Wagner and Tomlin appear painfully aware of the challenge of recapturing the past. ”The world is so different now,” Wagner says. ”It’s a strange, ultraconservative time. It’s not fashionable to be humanistic. I can’t believe (the movie’s reception) won’t be affected by that. I worry whether men will be interested. A lot of our audience is the supermom type, people who won’t stand on line to see Terminator 2.”

Still, Tomlin is optimistic, in her fashion. ”I believe you can always reach people,” she says. ”I mean, the movie will have its relative audience, whether it’s very tiny or relatively large. There’s got to be a contingent of people. And if that’s all we can tap, that’s all we can tap.”

Both women admit the delay in bringing The Search to the screen wasn’t part of their plan. ”Lily and Jane got themselves into a terrible jam,” says Hewitt. In 1984, Tomlin and Wagner contracted Nicholas Broomfield and Joan Churchill, the English husband-and-wife filmmakers, to shoot rehearsals and performances of The Search for a TV documentary. ”They gave these people access with the understanding that the documentary wouldn’t show too much of the play, which they always intended to turn into a film,” Hewitt says. ”Then the documentary came out, and they felt the play’s thunder had been stolen. They sued, and they lost.” It was several years before Tomlin and Wagner regained the momentum to film the show.

Midway through her margarita, Lily Tomlin sights former California governor Jerry Brown, a little heavier and grayer than he used to be, across the floor of the Mexican restaurant. Brown spies her and comes over. ”Well,” he says, ”I’m runnin’ again.” It’s a strange, transdimensional, Search-like moment, these two figures from the height of the ’70s in sudden lunar conjunction. There’s even a Linda Ronstadt song playing in the background. And neither Tomlin nor I have any idea what Brown is running for. (The big one, it turns out.)

”I hope you can be part of it,” Brown finally says.

”Maybe I can,” Tomlin says. ”I hope so, Jerry. Really.”

”Oh, how do you get to be a politician?” she says, mournfully, after he leaves. ”I mean, show business is bad enough. I used to do this line — what if people in show business had to be elected every four years?” She laughs. ”It would be a good test, wouldn’t it?”

She thinks about it for a moment. ”It’s wonderful to make something,” she says. ”You have that incredible freedom and childlike experience of being in the creative process. But then you’ve always got to put it out there. You’ve always got to sell it. You know, rise or fall by it. And you gotta live through it all. And it makes you competitive with people, and you fear for your own survival.” Then the great smile, its wattage only slightly dimmed by sadness, dispels the gloom. ”It’s too bad you can’t just put on shows in the backyard, you know?”

Lily Tomlin is about to appear on Late Night With David Letterman for the first time in nearly five years, and she is monumentally nervous. She’s running late, and the huge white limo that’s taking her to Rockefeller Center is stuck in Fifth Avenue traffic. Tomlin sits in the back, looking miserable behind big dark glasses, cradling her Norwich terrier, Tess. ”I thought everybody just comes on to plug something, but they do more stuff, you know?” she says.

Backstage at NBC, she despairs into the big mirror as the makeup woman works on her. ”Do you think my eyes are clean enough underneath?” she asks, over and over. Finally she lets out an agonized ”OHHHHHH!”

”In about 14 minutes it’ll all be over,” says Frank Gannon, Letterman’s segment producer.

”I wasn’t meant to be an entertainer,” Tomlin says.

The phone rings. ”Is it the governor?” she says.

There’s no last-minute reprieve, but everything turns out fine. Tomlin gives good segment, even getting up to do one of her old Cass Tech cheerleading routines. The audience loves her. And Letterman, who actually saw The Search as a play, is respectful, even sweet. She reenters the greenroom in triumph and sweeps out, gathering her small retinue. Miss America, another guest, is dying to meet her. A comic scheduled to appear in a few minutes turns to a friend. ”I’m not stupid enough to go on after her,” he says.

This is what it comes down to, after all: She is loved, as few other entertainers are. The next night, in the rain, at a bookstore in Greenwich Village, dozens of fans show up to get their paperback copies of The Search autographed.

”This is calm compared to last week — Sting was here,” a security man says. ”You had 1,500 screaming fans.”

Tomlin’s fans only glow. ”She looks at you so deeply that you feel she sees all of you,” says Goldie Hawn, Tomlin’s coworker on Laugh-In, and it’s true. For two hours, Tomlin sits behind a card table, signing books, taking each person in, calling each by name. ”Hi, I’m Joan, and this is Cindy,” a forthright young woman says, indicating her shy friend. ”I would like to thank you and Jane for this.”

Intimacy is her true medium. ”I used to have a little storefront (in L.A.),” she tells me. ”I wish I still had that storefront. We worked on The Search there. It had 25 seats in it, see. We used to put out fliers — ‘No costumes, no props, no actors, no refunds.”’ She laughs. ”Right now,” she says, ”if I had a little group — I could get my stage manager, maybe a sound person — we’d be hittin’ the road to go to San Diego. If Jane would just write us a new play.”

But Wagner doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. ”Everything has to become a product,” she complains. Still, as she had Trudy the bag lady say, ”(M)aybe one day we’ll do something so magnificent, everyone in the universe will get goose bumps.” If anyone can do it, it’s Tomlin and Wagner. But when?