Sunday, June 28, 2020

Intelligent Lives in the Universe



Around 1989 or so I was at the library flipping through a book the title of which I can no longer recall but it was something like Famous Gay People Throughout History. All the usual--and long dead--suspects were there: Sappho, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, etc. The book was breezily written, the author realizing that while the historical gayness of Sappho was a no-brainer, when it comes to someone like King James (best known these days for his Bible), it may be more a matter of conjecture. The fun was in the speculation. And the speculation got revved up quite a bit on the book's final page, which dealt with still-living celebrities who had not yet publicly announced their homosexuality. To avoid any lawsuits, the author had simply provided a page of initials, and it was up to the reader to figure out to whom these initials belonged. One set of initials read L.T. It didn't take much guessing on my part to figure out who that was. Not because of any rumors I'd heard but due to the fact that someone had penciled Lily Tomlin right next to it! Whatever anger I might have felt over the defacement of a library book soon gave way to a sense of intrigue. As a kid I had watched Tomlin on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and then, as I got older, watched her TV specials, the times she guest-hosted Saturday Night Live, the network showings of her feature films, and her talk show appearances. I found Tomlin funny, and considered myself a fan. Now to find out she was gay! Far from disappointed, I wanted to know more about this aspect of her life. Unfortunately, there was no Internet back then to do further research--remember, I was in the library flipping through a book--and the mainstream media of the day stayed out of Tomlin's personal life, as well they should. And really, it was none of my business. But if that mysterious pencil-carrying library vandal knew this about her, why shouldn't I? It was maybe another ten years before I pieced together not just the puzzle of her life but, as it turned out, her career, too, which has since become public knowledge. So, as this parade-less Pride Month quietly plays itself out, perhaps Tomlin's story can provide a bit of inspiration. It's not a float, but you won't have to go through the trouble of looking for a spot on a crowded sidewalk.





The daughter of Southern Baptists from Kentucky who relocated to Detroit during the Great Depression, Lily Tomlin attended Wayne State University originally intending to study biology, but soon switched her major to drama. However, keep in mind that drama is not always the same as dramatic. After college and in-between auditions and whatever roles she would have gotten from such auditions, Tomlin did stand-up comedy, first in Detroit, and then in New York City. In the latter location, she continued to study acting at the highly-regarded HB Studio. She appeared on TV for the first time in 1965 on The Merv Griffin Show. That and other television appearances brought her to the attention of the producers of the aforementioned Laugh-In. Original cast member Judy Carne was leaving, and Tomlin was brought in as a replacement. Tomlin ended up becoming the last great breakout star to emerge from the sketch comedy show. Among the characters she became famous for were Ernestine, the 1940s-in-the-1960s telephone operator, and Edith Ann, the philosophical, lisping little girl on the big chair. Declining ratings eventually forced the once-popular Laugh-In off the air in 1973, but that had no notable effect on Tomlin's career, at least not in the negative sense. Her first comedy album, This Is a Recording, peaked at #15 on Billboard, the highest ever for a solo comedienne, and won a Grammy. Naturally, there was a demand for an encore. It was how to meet this demand that now proved vexing. Out of economic necessity, Tomlin had written all or most of her stand-up material up to that point, but had never truly considered herself a writer. Her performances were limited  by what words she could come up with to put in her characters mouths. To her fans, that didn't seem like much of a limitation at all, but Tomlin wanted the act to have more depth than she felt she herself was capable. Now that she could afford one, Tomlin set about finding herself a writer.



Enter Jane Wagner. Compared to Lily Tomlin, biographical details are a bit harder to come by, even on her own website. She was born in Tennessee during the 1930s, wrote for the school newspaper, but was also interested in acting and eventually became a leading player at the Barter Theatre in Virginia. Then, like Tomlin, off to New York City to really make it as an actress. Instead, she made it as a designer, creating the  “Teach Me, Read Me” children’s bed sheets for Fieldcrest. Finally, writing. In 1969, when I was in the second grade, Wagner made her first professional sale as a writer, an hour-long children's special (almost immediately adapted into a book) titled J.T. Here's where that gap in her biography becomes, for me, particularly frustrating. Did Wagner send an unsolicited teleplay to CBS, or was this done through an agent? Either way, it was smart of the network to greenlight the project. Kevin Hooks, in an exceptional performance (of which there was another forthcoming in the feature film Sounder, and he was pretty good as Morris Thorpe in TV's The White Shadow, too), is the title character, a young boy living in Harlem who adopts a one-eyed alley cat. I was watching this on the computer a short while ago when I suddenly realized I had seen it the first time around! I remember liking it back then though my second-grade self was much disturbed by the feline's ultimate fate (honestly, my fifty-something self wasn't too pleased about it either.) J.T. went on to win the prestigious Peabody Award. Though ostensibly for children, it certainly can be appreciated by adults. One adult who appreciated it was Lily Tomlin, who then got in contact with Wagner, asking for help on her Edith Ann album. This I find a bit puzzling. J.T. may have been high-caliber television, but it wasn't a comedy. Tomlin never tells you where Edith Ann lives, but I very much doubt that it's Harlem. Nevertheless, Tomlin wanted Edith Ann to be less a caricature of a little girl and more like a real youngster, and Wagner wanted to show everyone that she, too, could be funny. According to Tomlin, when the two finally met in person, they immediately "clicked". 





The result was 1972's And That's the Truth. Unlike on Laugh-In, where Tomlin was dressed up as Edith Ann and addresses the viewer directly, here she relies totally on her voice to achieve the same effect since,  after all, there's no viewer, just a listener (well, there would have been viewers in the night club where this album was recorded, but even there I think she was out of costume.) But instead of being addressed directly, the listener gets to listen in as Edith Ann pesters a neighborhood lady (also voiced by Tomlin) walking to her home and then again at that home itself. The album did well, peaking at # 41 on Billboard's Hot 200 chart. Jane Wagner was also on the writing staff on all four of Tomlin's Emmy Awards-laden specials made between 1973 and 1981. The first three were produced by former Laugh-In writer and future Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. The fourth, Lily Sold Out, which ends with out heroine in a Las Vegas pool amidst a floating pair of push-up bra inserts, was produced by Wagner. The duo also collaborated on a couple of feature films, Moment by Moment and The Incredible Shrinking Woman, neither one of which garnered much in the way of critical acclaim or box office receipts, but that hardly slowed them down. Their real forte was the stage, where Tomlin got her start, except this time that stage wouldn't be in...



...some cellar nightclub.



In 1977, Tomlin became the first woman to appear solo in a Broadway play, Appearing Nitely, written and directed by Wagner. There were all the old standbys, such as Ernestine the operator, and suburban housewife Mrs. Judith Beesley, and some new characters such as Trudy the bag lady, elderly blues revivalist Sister Boogie Woman, and Rick, a macho habitué of  single bars (among other things, Tomlin pioneered male drag.) The show toured the country, and was made into an album, Lily Tomlin on Stage, that earned a Grammy nomination. But it was Tomlin's and Wagner's next Broadway show, eight years later, that remains their career-defining achievement as a team, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It's still a one-woman show, but this time, there's actually a narrative running through the whole thing. Trudy the bag lady is receiving alien signals through her tattered umbrella. It seems the otherworldly beings are curious about what we Earthlings are like, and Tomlin provides them with a cross-section of (American) humanity, both male and female. The play won a Tony for Tomlin as Best Actress, and was turned into both a book and a movie. And it's a tribute to Wagner's talents as a writer that the play is now occasionally performed without Tomlin (one Los Angeles production transformed it from a one-person to a twelve-person play, each actor playing a different character.)

 
As you may have guessed by now, or maybe even have known for decades (I'm talking to you, library book-defacer), Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner didn't just click professionally but romantically as well.  By the time And That's the Truth went on sale in record shops, they had become lovers, and have remained lovers ever since. And in 2013 they became more than that when they picked up their licenses and were married in a private ceremony. Prior to them tying the knot, they were somewhat discreet about their relationship. In 1975, Time magazine offered Tomlin the cover if she came out, but she said no (two years later, all the TV specials and first Broadway show got her the cover anyway.) Like a lot of celebrities in recent years, Tomlin and Wagner relied on a kind of osmosis to get the word out as the LGBTQ movement picked up steam. You can pass judgement on them for their lengthy discretion if you wish, but few couples, gay or straight, have so successfully merged their professional and personal lives, and for that they should take a great deal of Pride.






The above clip is from the feature film version of The Search for Signs of Intelligence Life in the Universe. In the original stage show you wouldn't have seen the inside of a car with rain pelting the windows, nor Lily Tomlin in three different outfits and three different hairstyles, the editing to pull something like that off downright impossible in a live performance. No, it would have been Tomlin wearing black pants and a white blouse throughout the whole thing, changing only her voice and facial expression as she switched from one character to another. Pure acting.

 

20 comments:

  1. Hello Kirk, Wow, from a set of bare initials to all this--the only thing you left out is her blood type*. Somehow, I never saw much of Tomlin, so I was not so familiar with her various characters, until now.
    --Jim
    * Seriously, in Taiwan pop-star magazines, the star's blood type is always included, usually in a prominent box with other vital statistics such as height and horoscope sign.

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    1. Jim, I googled "Lily Tomlin's blood type" and came up empty. If she ever tours Taiwan, maybe we'll all find out once and for all.

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  2. I remember hearing that Lily Tomlin was gay, but I wondered why you never heard of any gay lovers. I think this might be the first thing I read that filled in my blanks. Good on them for the years together. I've always enjoyed Lily.

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  3. Hi, Kirk!

    I see that Lily was born September 1 and she is still alive. Thanks for bringing us this report on her life and career... just because. :)

    I might have told you this before, but I was not a fan of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in, especially the later seasons. Moreover I honestly didn't find the Lily Tomlin characters Ernestine or Edith May funny, nor did I like the characters she portrayed in The Search for Signs of Intelligence Life in the Universe. However I did like Lily in Murphy Brown, The West Wing and Damages, and I probably saw all 22 of her guest appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, most of her 15 on Mike Douglas and most of her dozen guest shots on Letterman's two shows. I particularly liked seeing her with her partner Jane Wagner in that unscripted appearance at the Walk of Stars. I'd like to watch the 1969 film J.T. I just learned that Ja'net DuBois, the beautiful Philadelphia actress who played J.T.'s mother, died earlier this year at age 87. I can relate to spending a fortune feeding a stray cat.

    Thank you for summarizing Lily Tomlin's career and giving us a peek into her personal life with Jane Wagner. Have a great week, good buddy Kirk!

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    1. See, Shady, I don't always peg these posts on birthdays and death notices.

      The excerpt I show from In Search of Intelligent Life in the Universe is tinged with drama, so I'm not surprised you wouldn't find that funny. Laugh-In? Humor is subjective.

      Ja'net DuBois (no relation to Blanche or Stella) also played next-door neighbor Willona on Good Times.

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    2. Oh, and Ja'net DuBois also co-wrote and sang "Moving On Up", the theme song for The Jeffersons.

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  4. I have loved Lily Tomlin for a long, long time! And that's the truth.

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    1. Mitchell, Edith Ann is my favorite of her characters.

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  5. Yes, she was one of the ones in "the glass closet" for so many, many years.

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    1. Debra, that's why I kept bringing up the penciled name next to the initials. For all their discretion, news of the relationship made it all the way to a library in a Cleveland suburb.

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  6. I loved Edith Ann and Ernestine. (Snort)

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    1. Mike, according to my comments moderation page, you followed that (Snort) with The Search for Signs of Intelligence... For some reason, when I pressed "publish" it only took the first part of your comment. I don't know why and how that happened, but I take it you didn't like either her Broadway show or the movie based on it.

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  7. I loved her in Laugh In but I wasn't aware of the rest of her career. I knew she was gay some time ago but I don't know where I heard it or read it. Thanks for telling her story.

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    1. Andrew, in spite of everything else she's done in her career, for a lot of people it's still Laugh-In she's best known for. Shows you the power of television back in the day.

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  8. I don't know much about either of them. I know Lily's face probably having seen some of Rowan and Martin. Good they are still going strong today :-D

    The lost art of research too, before the internet! Didn't find her blood type....but her shoe size is 8!!!

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    1. Ananka, I looked it up, and 8 is about average for a woman. Maybe the only average thing about lily Tomlin.

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In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.