Sept. 12 2012 12:00 AM

Lily Tomlin brings her one-woman act to Wharton this weekend


She squirmed. She fidgeted. She talked like a little kid. And she told weird stories in the seat of a ridiculously oversized rocking chair. As a kid, some part of me knew that this person I saw on TV was just an actor, but I was hypnotized nonetheless— I’d never seen anything like it. This was Edith Ann, the mischievous “5-and-a-half”-year old played by Lily Tomlin, and one of her most indelible alter egos. It was also my introduction — on “Sesame Street,” no less — to character acting. 

Sketch comedy aside, character-driven humor has been reduced (elevated?) to mustachioed Middle Easterners with microphones getting people to reveal their hidden racism. Back in the late ‘60s, however, character acting was groundbreaking — especially for a woman. 

“At the time, I was one of the few people doing character stuff that way,” Tomlin said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “There’d been a history of great woman monologue artists, like Ruth Draper, but very few.” 

From 1969 to 1973, Tomlin also played Ernestine, the vindictive telephone operator, and Judith “The Tasteful Lady” Beasley, who lampooned holier-than-thous, on the landmark show “Martin & Rowan’s Laugh-In.” She was nominated for an Academy Award for her first film role in “Nashville,” starred in a handful of Hollywood hits including “9 to 5” and “All of Me,” and racked up Tony and Emmy awards for her television and stage work over the years. And this Sunday, Tomlin brings her one-woman show to the Wharton Center, where she will, in part, share what her characters are up to these days. That includes giving some of them a 21st century update — after all, do people even know what a telephone operator is anymore? 

“If I didn’t do Ernestine, there’d be an uproar,” Tomlin says. “I just have to keep her relevant. Now she works at a big health care insurance corporation denying coverage to everyone. She’s not going to stick around the phone company. She’s going to go where she can intimidate.” 

Tomlin, who just turned 73, grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Detroit’s inner city. Her parents were “fundamentalist Christians” from Kentucky who moved north after the Depression to take factory jobs. She says these hardscrabble roots played into her outlook on life and planted the seeds for her fascination with quirky personalities. 

“We lived in a run-down building with 40 apartments and 40 different hits on life,” she said. “And I used to hang around those apartments. I was crazy about everybody, because they were also different and weird and individual.” 

This diversity set the stage for a career of quirky-yet-relatable characterizations. The Tomlins were on the blue-collar scale of society, which created some acrimony when she had to listen to the middle class kids bragging about their vacations and luxurious Christmases in school. 

“You grew up thinking people who had money were very special they must know something very wonderful,” she says. “You see very early that there’s very little authority in the world that doesn’t have its own agenda. But I had as rich a childhood as you could imagine, except for, you know, being part of a bank -obbing gang.” 

Over the years, Tomlin has lent her voice to a variety of causes, championing issues such as environmental awareness, sexual equality and gay and lesbian rights. Although Tomlin has been with her partner Jane Wagner since the early ‘70s, she didn’t officially come out as a member of the LGBT community to the media until about 10 years ago. 

“I was never secretive about it, but my mother didn’t want to talk about it,” Tomlin says. “She loved Jane, you can’t not love Jane, but my mom was more concerned about what the family would think.” 

She said she always visits her “old haunts” when she comes to Michigan, visiting old friends and an aunt who still lives in the Detroit suburbs. When told she is in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame here in Lansing, Tomlin, who was inducted in 1998, said she “had no idea” she was sharing space with legends such as Rosa Parks, Aretha Franklin and Gilda Radner. 

“I’ve got to go then, dammit,” Tomlin sad. “Are there any pictures? Can you see what I’m doing?” 

She says her show coming to town is “very free-form,” with no props or costume changes, featuring interactive video segments in addition to her roster of personae, and will include satirical material that pokes fun at her own celebrity. Tomlin also plans to work in material about Lansing and Michigan State University. 

One thing that won’t make the show, though, is that big rocking chair.   

“I don’t bring any stuff — how could I carry that?” she laughs. “Six men have to lift it.” 

And, as Edith Ann would say, that’s the truth. 

Lily Tomlin
Sunday, 7 p.m.
Cobb Great Hall, Wharton Center, Michigan State University
Tickets: $15 for students, others range from $28 to $63.
Also tune in to 88.9 FM The Impact at 7 tonight to hear an interview with Tomlin