As if there were any doubt, Lily Tomlin reminded the world of her singular talents as she received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award on Sunday night in Los Angeles.
Taking the stage at the 23rd annual SAG Awards, the acclaimed actress, comedian, writer, and producer accepted the honor from Dolly Parton, her longtime friend and costar in the 1980 comedy hit Nine to Five.
“Ironically, this award makes you feel like not that you’ve done so much, but like you wish you had done so much more to receive an honor such as this,” said Tomlin, 77, in her acceptance speech. “In my defense, I wasted a lot of time being ambitious about the wrong things. When I was a youth, I can’t even point to a time when I showed promise of being anything but trouble. … But somehow, I learned how to turn my flaws into spiritual lessons. I must say watching Oprah really helped.”
Tomlin then offered some advice for younger actors, including “wear sunscreen” and “don’t leave the house when you’re drunk.”
“And don’t be anxious about missing an opportunity,” she added. “Behind every failure there is an opportunity that someone is wishing they had missed.”
Tomlin’s speech offered some levity in an otherwise somber ceremony in which many actors devoted their speeches to speaking out against Donald Trump and his so-called “Muslim ban” — an executive order banning citizens and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.
Though she did not address the ban directly, Tomlin offered a few political jabs. “The Doomsday Clock has moved up to two-and-a-half minutes before midnight,” she said at the beginning of her speech. “And this award, it came just in the nick of time.” Later in her speech, she offered this advice to actors: “Live your life so that when you are being honored for your achievement, the people who are called upon to make laudatory remarks can feel reasonably honest about their comments. Otherwise, in these times, all their words of praise might be perceived as alternative facts, or worse yet, fake news.”
Talking to reporters backstage after her speech, Tomlin spoke about Trump more directly, referencing Nazi Germany. “You’ve got to change the laws. Trump is changing the laws now… he’s trying to change the laws,” Tomlin said. “I don’t want to make this comparison. I’m not making it in any way. But the Nazis, they changed the laws. They didn’t agree with them. They just changed them, and they can do whatever they wanted. Now that was over a period of time. I think we have to be vigilant and stop certain behaviors so that someone who has not thought something through doesn’t get too far in the process. If you get too far, they might believe it themselves, that it’s true, and it should be pursued. So we need to be vigilant.”
A show business veteran whose career spans half a century, Tomlin started performing on stand-up stages in the ’60s before landing her breakout role on the sketch comedy series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
She would go on to star in films including Nashville, The Late Show, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Short Cuts, I Heart Huckabees, and Grandma; television series including Murphy Brown, The Magic School Bus, Will & Grace, The West Wing, Desperate Housewives, and Grace and Frankie (which also stars Fonda); and the Broadway shows Appearing Nitely and The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (the latter of which was written by Tomlin’s wife and longtime collaborator, Jane Wagner).
Tomlin has won Emmy, Grammy, and Tony awards, and received Kennedy Center Honors and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She’s also in the running for the SAG Award for actress in a comedy series for her work in Grace and Frankie, making her just the second performer to receive the guild’s lifetime award while appearing in a competitive category. (James Garner was the first, in 2005).
The Life Achievement Award honors both “career achievement” and “humanitarian accomplishment,” and off screen, Tomlin is a staunch supporter of philanthropic organizations devoted to civil rights, health care, animal welfare, overcoming homelessness, and LGBTQ advocacy.
Previous recipients of the SAG Life Achievement Award include Carol Burnett, Debbie Reynolds, Rita Moreno, and Dick Van Dyke.
Additional reporting by Marc Snetiker