Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Lily Tomlin made her first big splash when she joined the cast of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in its third season, introducing audiences to a telephone-company employee named Ernestine and a little girl named Edith Ann. She began her film career a few years later as part of the ensemble of Robert Altman’s Nashville. Although Tomlin has maintained a relatively high profile on the small screen in recent years, thanks to memorable guest-starring roles on Desperate Housewives and Eastbound And Down, Tomlin is now taking on a new series-regular gig, playing Reba McEntire’s mother on the new ABC sitcom Malibu Country.
Malibu Country (2012-present)—“Lillie Mae”
Lily Tomlin: First of all, they let me name the character after my mother, who has died, so my family enjoys the tribute to her. And as far as how I got the part, they just called me. But I knew Reba [McEntire], and I’m fond of her. I’ve always thought that she’s very funny. I saw her in Annie Get Your Gun years ago, and she was definitely out of this world. In fact, I almost hate to tell this story, because I’ve told it so many times to people when they ask, “So how do you know Reba?” But it was unbelievable. After 10 minutes on the stage, I was in tears, because she was so human, so alive. When that role comes together with somebody, it’s really kind of divine. So I was very moved and elated to see this performance, and I never forgot it. I even went backstage and carried on about it.
As far as Malibu Country itself goes, my brother lives in Nashville, my mother and dad are both buried in Nashville, ’cause they were Southern, although I grew up in Detroit. That’s all, really. I thought, “Okay, this is good.” I thought it was a pretty good script, and I thought it had a lot of potential for the mother character. And, you know, I’ve stepped into series before—Murphy Brown, The West Wing, the little stint I did on Desperate Housewives, and even Laugh-In, which I stepped into during its third year—but this is the first time I’ve ever started with a series.
The A.V. Club: Does it feel any different?
LT: I don’t know what it feels like exactly. [Laughs.] I like working on a series, especially one that’s running well, because I enjoyed all those other shows. Especially Murphy and West Wing. Those were great. I only did six or seven episodes on Housewives, and I did that because Kathryn [Joosten, West Wing’s Mrs. Landingham] was my good friend. She died just recently. I guess it feels kind of fun. And interesting. Of course, it’s a little more daunting because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re fortunate if you get invited to join a show that’s already a hit. But this group is fabulous, so that’s a big part of it. No tension on the set. Everybody’s great, and I think that’s because of Reba. She kind of sets the tone. And Kevin Abbott, the head writer, who’s the show runner, he’s really easygoing as well. It’s a great thing when that happens on a set. That was something I really used to love about Bob Altman: You never felt like you’ve failed at something. It was “we’ll do it again,” or “let’s try it this way,” or, in some cases, he wouldn’t say anything. Sometimes with Bob, if you asked to do another take, he’d ask, “Well, what do you want to do?” And you’d tell him, and then either he’d go, “Okay, we’re gonna take another one,” or else he’d say, “Nah, I’ve got it.” [Laughs.]
Nashville (1975)—“Linnea Reese”
AVC: How did you first fall into Robert Altman’s camp?
LT: That happened because we had the same agent, I’m sure. Sam Cohn. Sam was known to put family together. When I did The Late Show with Art Carney and Bob Benton, they were both clients. I had optioned a book, and my partner Jane Wagner wrote a screenplay for it. It was a book called Maiden, by Cynthia Buchanan. I was still on Laugh-In, and I read this book in galleys and thought it was just so great. At the time, it was often referred to in a kind of feminist trilogy with [Joan Didion’s] Play It As It Lays and… something else I can’t remember. But it was about an incredibly tragic/comic character, and Bob Altman was looking for something for Joan Tewksberry to direct. He’d just come off Thieves Like Us, I think, which I loved. I guess Bob told Sam, “I want to try and do this screenplay with Joan.” He was going to produce it and Joan would direct it. Whatever happened, he called me on the phone and said, “Come down to Nashville and do this part, we’ll get to know each other, and then we’ll do Maiden in the fall.” Well, Maiden never got made, because that’s when someone from Columbia came down to Nashville and… This is a well-trod story, but they wanted him to cut six minutes out of California Split or something, and he punched one of them in the nose, they fell in the pool, and Maiden never got made. But I did Nashville in the meantime.
AVC: You’d never done a movie before. Was that daunting?
LT: No, I never felt any medium was different from another, except you can feel what it requires. You can do something very broad or you can do something very subtle. It depends on what’s on the page, or what you think is on the page. Or the style of the piece. So, no, I probably was scared, but I don’t know that I had enough sense to be that scared at the time. [Laughs.] Also, it just seemed sort of inevitable. I felt okay about it, about my own choices at that time, and I adored Altman, anyway. Sam was a great agent and represented a lot of very good artists, so I tried to be guided by that, too. I felt comfortable. And as I said, my family’s Southern, so I knew that culture. In fact, as we were watching the dailies, I said to Bob, “I hope we get out of here before people in Nashville see this, because I know how sensitive Southerners are.” Especially that generation.
But Altman had seduced us all. Everybody in town was part of the movie, the business owners, the high-school band. Julie Christie and Elliott Gould just came to visit the set, but Altman figured out a way to put them in the movie. And the kids who were deaf? We didn’t see a bunch of kids. We saw the first boy and the first girl. That’s how he was. His instincts were just fearless. He really did have a certain something. I’d hear actors say to him, “What should I do in this scene, Bob?” And he said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you surprise me?” He was just so freewheeling.
Music Scene (1969)—Host
Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1970-1973)—Cast member
AVC: Your first big break on television came via a hosting gig for Music Scene, and then you moved on to Laugh-In from there, but how did you find your way onto television to begin with?
LT: Well, I was in New York, and I didn’t want to be on television. At all. I wanted to be a stage actress. I wanted to be a New York actress and have a community with other actors. I didn’t want to get famous; I always thought getting famous was a drag on you. Especially back in those days. It was much more idealistic then. We actually used to think that integrity meant something. [Laughs.] But I had an agent, and there was an English girl who was managing me. I was working at the Upstairs at the Downstairs, and Dixie Carter, Madeline Kahn, and I were the girls in the show. That was the summer of ’66. Then I got a bid to go on The Garry Moore Show, which was making a comeback. I came back to the Upstairs, and that didn’t work out for me at all. They dropped my option because I was forever arguing about material. So I was going to go back to Detroit; I thought, “Well, I had my chance,” because The Garry Moore Show was a national show. But it had been very old-fashioned. The Smothers Brothers’ show replaced it mid-season, so it was kind of the last gasp of that kind of variety show. Be that as it may, I had decided to lay low, thinking that I’d had my opportunity.
At the time, I was living between Second and Third Street, making ends meet by typing up market-research tapes at any hour of the day or night. That was why kids did it: because you could go in at 3 in the morning, clock in, and continue on whatever tape you’d been transcribing when you’d left before. It was at the Plaza Hotel, and it was back in the hippie days, so we had to go in through the basement. They didn’t want hippies in the lobby. [Laughs.] But I had done a Vicks’ Vapo-Rub commercial sometime earlier that summer, and it began to air in the fall during cold season, and suddenly I had huge residuals in my mailbox. I mean, I opened my mailbox and had something like $10,000 in residuals, which was just an absolute fortune. I could barely open my mailbox, they were stuffed in so tight. And I thought, “Oh, my God, this is astounding!” And then I began to get calls for other commercials. After that, they asked me to come back to the Upstairs. And I said, “I’ll come back if I can do one of my own monologues.” They wouldn’t let me do them [before] because they said the style was too different. So I did “The World’s Oldest Living Beauty Expert,” which got me a huge review in The New York Times from Vincent Canby, who, before he was the movie critic, was the nightclub critic. And that’s how I ended up getting a manager. She’d been a publicist, and she came to the Upstairs waving my review and saying, “I’d like to try to do something for you.” And I said, “Well, okay, but I don’t want to be famous.” [Laughs.] And she talked to [Johnny] Carson’s people and those kinds of shows, and eventually I got on Merv Griffin’s show, because he’d have unknowns on. So I’d go on and do a monologue, and then I’d always buy the kinescope with the money I’d get from doing the show. I went on about once a month for about four or five months, and then I got the bid to go on Music Scene, and I got one to go on Laugh-In, too. But it was Laugh-In’s third season, and I wasn’t inclined to go on television, anyway. Music Scene was so hip. It was a tie-in with Billboard; Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin did concerts on that show, and it was in primetime on ABC. So I chose Music Scene over Laugh-In because of that, and also because it was being produced by the Smothers Brothers’ producers.
There was a troupe of four or five kids as hosts. [Snorts.] “Kids.” But David Steinberg was the lead host, and then I was one of the other four or however many it was. It was two girls and three boys, I think, and we were kind of like Snooky Lanson or Gisele MacKenzie [on Your Hit Parade], but we didn’t sing. We did comedy, and then we’d intro these songs. It was all very hip. But it got canceled. Parents just hated it. They thought it was terrible. Because this was 1969, so to see all these presumably long-haired dopers in primetime… [Trails off into laughter.]
But the offer for Laugh-In was still there, so I went over and met George Schlatter, and I must say he was, like, the first person who ever got me. Just without blinking an eye. Because earlier I’d gone to [Dick] Cavett or Carson, people like that, and I’d start to do a monologue, and they’d have a mechanism to make their phone ring, and then I’d have to go out. [Laughs.] Literally, someone would have to come and usher me out of the office, and then I’d just start sobbing. But George was so great. I’m still great friends with him. That’s how I got onto Laugh-In. But I think I got the bid because Judy Carne was going to leave, and she was doing a switchboard thing. That’s what I think made me prominent in their minds: They heard I did a telephone operator. So I went in and shot for about six or seven weeks before I went on the air, and I had no idea that Ernestine was going to hit the way she did.
AVC: So were you writing all of your own material, or were you collaborating with the show’s writers?
LT: I worked with anybody I could. In the old days, there were a couple of kids I pitched with. I’d pay them $15 an hour to pitch with me. [Laughs.] One of them was Jim Rusk, who later wrote on my TV specials. I’d love to make contact with Jim. The last I knew, he was living in Tulsa, but I don’t know where he is now. I can’t think of the other young woman’s name who pitched with me, but she was really funny, too. But the three of us would pitch, and that’s where the “Mr. Veedle” monologue came from.
I took that monologue to Laugh-In, and as a result, I became kind of a little touchstone with Gore Vidal, too. There was always a little twinkle, because he loved that I did that monologue, or he got a kick out of it or something. Most people didn’t know… I don’t remember how people first figured out that “Mr. Veedle” was supposed to be Gore Vidal, but it’s a great monologue with some great lines. [Goes into her Ernestine voice.] “We are omnipotent. That’s ‘potent’ with an ‘omni’ in front of it.” I think David Panich, who wrote for Laugh-In, is the one who coined “one ringy-dingy,” because it wouldn’t have occurred to me that that would be something that would stick with people. But it had all that good stuff. Like when she says, “I’ve got your tax returns and…” Oh, I can’t remember how the hell the monologue went now, but it was something like, “I’m looking through your tax returns, stock holdings, and other privileged information.” [Snorts.] “Oh, that’s so cute!”
AVC: Edith Ann also debuted on Laugh-In. Was she your creation?
LT: Well, yes, but what happened was that I first went on Laugh-In in mid-season, and then because Ernestine was so huge, I went on the road with Dan [Rowan] and Dick [Martin] during the hiatus and opened for them. There were three acts that would open for them, and we’d each do, like, 20 minutes. When they’d start to introduce me, they’d say, “She sat down at the switchboard…” And the audience would just go into a roar. But you kind of didn’t even really get that that’s what you were hearing. You just couldn’t imagine that that many people at one time could see something on television and have it imprinted on them in some way. Ernestine was very, very popular.
Anyway, I worked on Edith Ann that summer while we were on tour. I’d have the audience ask Edith Ann questions, and I’d just improv stuff. So I’d been working and working on Edith, and I wanted Edith to be on the show, but they didn’t like Edith. Laugh-In didn’t like Edith. They thought she was too bratty, which she’s not bratty at all. And I was also doing Susie Sorority from the Silent Majority. They wanted Susie because they thought that could be a popular catchphrase, since the Silent Majority was so in the news, but I didn’t really have Susie developed. It was just kind of embryonic. So I said, “Well, I’ll trade you: I’ll do Susie if I can also do Edith.” But for the first couple of weeks, I had to do her in a big cardboard box because they wouldn’t build a rocking chair. So it’d be like she was in a refrigerator box, like the kind you used to make forts out of. Or like I used to, anyway. But she’d just open up a flap on the side and say, “My name’s Edith Ann, and I don’t have to say anything if I don’t want to.” [Laughs.] And she caught on. Who knows why? I was just blessed at that time.
Sesame Street (1976-1988)—“Edith Ann”
AVC: Did Sesame Street reach out to you to reprise the character, or was that a suggestion that you offered up to them?
LT: Yeah, they did. Laugh-In was off the air, but Ernestine and Edith Ann stayed popular for so long. And there’s still an audience for them. I mean, I’m sure many of them have died off, but, still, if I do a concert and don’t do Ernestine, I’ll be beaten in the parking lot. [Laughs.] I just have to keep her relevant. And, of course, I always do a bit of Edith, just rolling around on the floor and having fun. But yeah, they reached out to me about the character because that’s what I was known for, and Sesame Street would have lots of well-known people on, so it was just natural for them to have me do either Ernestine or Edith. There’s a whole audience that was introduced to those characters through Sesame Street. I’ll still meet young people who’ll have that as their first point of reference to Edith Ann. “Oh, I just loved her on Sesame Street!”
All Of Me (1984)—“Edwina Cutwater”
The Pink Panther 2 (2009)—“Mrs. Berenger”
And The Band Played On (1993)—“Dr. Selma Dritz”
LT: I loved All Of Me. That’s one of my favorite movies, just in general. Just because it’s so lyrical and sweet and terribly funny at the same time. And Steve [Martin] is so good. You know, he won the New York Film Critics award for that part. That whole “back in bowl” was improv between him and Richard Libertini, just out of nowhere. And, of course, that’s one of the bits that everyone references. That role I got because of Carl [Reiner]. I don’t know if they asked someone before me. Sometimes I do actually ask people, “Was I your first choice?” That way I can see who they were looking for before and how I match up to that. It doesn’t matter to me; it just gives me an indication of their sensibility. I knew Steve, though, from Saturday Night Live as well as from when he was a writer for the Smothers Brothers’ show.
AVC: You had the opportunity to team up with him again on The Pink Panther 2.
LT: That’s true. And we were actually also both in And The Band Played On. We each had a part in that. It seems like we might’ve also done something else, but I just can’t remember. But I absolutely loved All Of Me. Carl’s great. I mean, can you believe him? Even now. He’s incredible. He’s in his nineties now, but he’s just amazing.
AVC: He and Mel Brooks apparently hang out just about every night now, just watching TV together.
LT: Do they? Oh, the best part about that whole foursome [Carl and Estelle Reiner, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft] was that Estelle would go and sing in local clubs and stuff. And if you’d go early—and a couple of times I just happened to get there earlier—Mel and Anne were always there. They were always going to be in the audience. And there’s Carl, running cable for Estelle and hooking up speakers. It gives me goose bumps even now to tell that story, because I just loved Anne Bancroft, as you can imagine.
Short Cuts (1993)—“Doreen Piggot”
LT: First of all, I was mad to work with Tom Waits and felt very connected to him when we did work together. He seemed like someone I knew very well on a soul level. We did one thing I recall that would never read on camera: We “tattooed” on our hands, at the base of the right thumb, the image of half a heart and when I’d pass him at the counter, we’d touch that part of each hand to the other and he’d say under his breath, “’Til the wheels come off.” That’s how I remember it. If you watch the film, it may be somewhat different; however, that’s how we planned to do it. The other, more magical thing was that Tom called me the first night after shooting, in his character of “Earl” and spent maybe half an hour talking to me as “Doreen,” as he supposedly drove around in the limo, which was Earl’s job. Tom did that for two or three more nights after work. Thinking he’d never do it again, I never was prepared to tape him and, each time he called, he was nothing if not filled with poetry as Earl. I adore Tom Waits as an artist.
The Magic School Bus (1994-1997)—“Ms. Valerie Frizzle”
LT: [Claps her hands together.] Oh, my goodness! Yes, that was great. That was something where Scholastic came to me to do it, and at first I said, “Oh, I’m not good at [voice acting].” But I said, “If I do it, I want to make sure I do a good job, so let me just try and do a few things on tape and see how it feels or how it sounds.” And they still liked it, but I was very reluctant, because I don’t ever think I do that kind of thing well. Sometimes they’ll give me a book to read or when I narrated The Celluloid Closet for Rob [Epstein] and Jeff [Friedman], Jeff would have to go into the sound booth with me when I was recording, and I had to finally pretend he was from a foreign country so that I could talk to someone. [Laughs.] Also, what happens is that my voice gets real Detroit and real flat. Because that’s where I’m from. But Scholastic liked it, so I did it, and I’m happy I did it. Oh, let me tell you a quick story!
I don’t know if you know, but a lot of teachers around the country dress up like Ms. Frizzle. In fact, that’s one reason I really loved doing it, because all of those little kids. Although it’s funny, because their mom or dad will say, “This is Ms. Frizzle!” and they look at me and they don’t get it at all. In fact, they’re kind of scared. [Laughs.] “This isn’t Ms. Frizzle!” Anyway, I’d heard that this teacher was retired, and she’d been Ms. Frizzle for her third-grade class, and her class had watched a lot of the Magic School Bus videos, so I went to the school to surprise her kids, like I’d be such a big surprise. They don’t know me! In fact, they asked, “So what do you do when you’re not Ms. Frizzle?” And this is after it’d already taken a lot of convincing to get them to even buy that I was Ms. Frizzle. I had to say this thing and that, and they had to think it over and had to decide if it really sounded like Ms. Frizzle. So, finally, they said, “So what else do you do?” And I said, “Well, I do a lot of different characters and stuff.” “What kind of characters?” And I’m trying to tell them, and then I say, “Oh, I even do a kid!” And they wanted to hear it, so I started to do Edith Ann… Oh, my God, it was suddenly so embarrassing to pretend I was 6 years old when they’re all, like, 8. I finally had to stop and say, “Oh, this is so embarrassing. I usually don’t do this for kids. I do this for grown-ups.” And a little boy raised his hand, and he said, “Here’s what you should do: Just pretend we’re grown-ups.” [Laughs.] “Just pretend we’re grown-ups.” Why didn’t I think of that?
Damages (2010)—“Marilyn Tobin”
LT: I was a huge fan of Damages. The first season, I was mad for it. Crazy for it. Mary Kay Place and I were on a show together, an HBO show that never got on the air called 12 Miles Of Bad Road, and we were both so crazy for Damages that we’d almost leave in the middle of a scene to get home and watch it. [Laughs.] We’d be saying, “We’ve gotta get out of here!” Because that first season, you were just desperate to see what was going to happen. So later that year, I go to an event, and two of the guys were there. One of the Kesslers was there, and I guess Dan [Zelman] was there. Anyway, a couple of the guys were there with a friend, and they were introduced to me as some of the creators of Damages and it was almost embarrassing, frankly. I threw myself at them, and I said, “Oh, my God!” I mean, I was just over the moon, saying, “What’s gonna happen to so-and-so? What’s going to happen to this character?” I was just babbling on with them, hugging them. It was kind of embarrassing, I know, but it was also just so authentic in that moment. And then two seasons later…
AVC: Somehow they remembered that encounter.
LT: [Laughs.] Believe it or not! So there’s a method to my madness. When I got that bid, I said, “Oh, fabulous!” I didn’t even think about it. Because I trusted them artistically, totally. And it was really exhilarating, because here’s what happens: You don’t know if you’re really bad or good. It takes a few weeks. Every day after rehearsing or after shooting, I’d write them a note and say, “Please don’t make Marilyn long-suffering.” Because I didn’t know anything! We’d stand around—Marty [Short], Campbell [Scott], and I—and say, “Do you think Lenny would kill Marilyn? Do you think Marilyn would kill Joe?” We just didn’t know, and we were all so hoping that we were really bad. [Laughs.] But I think it adds to your performance, because you stay a little ambiguous. You’re kind of leaving a possibility. And they’re going along, and they have an arc and know what they want to do, but they have to adapt to what begins to happen with the actors. So it was exciting. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to come back the next season!
Shadows And Fog (1991)—“Prostitute”
LT: I wouldn’t say I’m tight with Woody [Allen] or anything. In fact, that was during that whole time [with Soon-Yi]. Mia was in the movie, and they had Dylan and the other child, the baby boy. They had a nursery on the set for the babies, and Mia was there. I’d come home and—I’m so thick, anyway—I’d be saying, “Oh, they’re just so in love and so devoted to each other.” And it was, like, only a matter of hours before the big news came out. So, uh, people don’t really rely on my perception of what’s going on with people. [Laughs.] I think everything’s just going dandy!
The other thing about Shadows And Fog was that Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, and I were the prostitutes, and we went back and forth between L.A. and New York four or five times to reshoot the end, and each time we’d go back, it would just be Woody’s line that would be changed. But we got to go to New York all those times, which was sort of great. I was pleased to be in it, you know, although I didn’t become one of his “family” or anything, like I did with Altman.
Eastbound & Down (2012)—“Tammy”
LT: Okay, well, that’s a favorite. I love those guys, and I’m crazy about Kenny Powers—Danny McBride—but I didn’t even know about the show, which I will regret saying, no doubt. So when I got the bid to do it, I knew David Gordon Green vaguely because he had tried to do Confederacy Of Dunces. He must’ve talked to me about doing the role of the mother, but this would be I don’t know how many years ago. He seems so young, so I don’t know how it could be this long ago, but it must’ve been 15 years or more. That never happened, of course. Still, I kind of remembered that, and I thought, “Well…” So I watched the first two seasons of the show, I went nuts for it and did three episodes, spending quite a bit of time in a bowling alley. [Laughs.]
The Late Show (1977)—“Margo”
LT: C’mon, Art Carney and Bill Macy? It was Bob Benton’s second picture, and he wrote it. And Altman produced it. But it was done very low-budget. The woman who played the owner of the house that Art rented [Ruth Nelson], she was the wife of John Cromwell, the great director whose son is James Cromwell. Anyway, I thought that was an interesting bit of a trivia. And then both Ruth and John were in one of Altman’s films together a little bit after that [3 Women] But now I’m definitely giving you too much information. [Laughs.]
AVC: How was the experience of playing against Art Carney, given that the two of you were of decidedly different generations?
LT: Yeah, right, I’d be in his generation now, wouldn’t I? We made that in ’76, so that was 35 years ago. Wow. Yeah, I loved him. But I didn’t get on with the crew at all, because it was a very inexpensive movie, and they had to bounce light from the ceiling just to light something. They were forever saying to me, “Well, just hold your head up.” [Laughs.] Because Art had this florid skin and white hair, so he looked great, he had so much light coming off of him, anyway. But I had this black hair and a long face and more olive skin, or at least not rosy like his. So I began taking a mirror on the set, and I could tell just from feeling that the light wasn’t good, but I took the mirror to be, like, my substantiation. I said, “I’m not going to shoot until you give me at least an eye light or something in my face.” Anyway, it got really bad. Although I knew Altman better, I didn’t go to him right away. I went to Bob Benton first, and I said, “Bob, no one understands that my hair is really black.” Do you want to hear all of these details?
LT: Okay, well, my hair looks like shoe polish, but without the shine. But they were just being dismissive of how it was going to look. The director of photography just said to me, “Oh, you’re a pretty girl. I’d marry you.” I mean, stuff like that. And, of course, I was starting to boil by the minute, that’s when I started to bring the mirror on the set. Then Bob Altman called me. We used to go to his office at Lion’s Gate Films [Altman’s production company, no relation to the current Lionsgate Entertainment —ed.], which was over in Westwood, and we’d look at dailies every night. He calls me one night and says, “Y’know, the guys say you’re giving them a really hard time…” I said, “I’m not gonna take the rap for this, Bob. These guys, they’re just not paying any attention to me, they don’t care what I say, they don’t try to help me, or make it look better or anything.”
So they said they were going to try to light me better, but they were really meaner than I’m telling you. I’m not really even telling you the full story on the crew, because they could be really vicious. Especially in those days. I mean, the stand-in girl, they would shoot beer all over her. This is because Bob Benton is such a mild-mannered guy compared to Altman, and he had Altman’s crew, and Altman’s crew was just… Altman could control them, because they were totally cowed by him and his presence. But Bob Benton was a much milder and much smaller guy compared to Altman, and they just ran roughshod over him! So, yeah, they would shoot beer on the girl, who was wearing a T-shirt, so she’d have a wet T-shirt, and they’d literally throw her from one guy to the next. There’d be sexist jokes and homophobic jokes and racist jokes. I’d say, “Don’t ever tell those jokes in my presence again!” [Laughs.] I was just unbearable for them.
But you know when they really started to admire me? When I did all the driving on the film myself, running over lawns and knocking down things, I could see that their attitude changed a little bit. It was so funny. And after I talked with Altman, he talked to them, and he said, “Okay, if you won’t take the mirror on the set, they’re gonna light you better. And then we’ll come back here and look at dailies, and if everyone agrees that it’s better, then everything will be fine.” So I did that. I didn’t take a mirror on the set, we shot for a couple of days, we went and looked at dailies, and it was improved. And I said, “Okay, if I look this well the rest of the movie, that’ll be fine.” And then the DP walks past me and says, “You always looked like that.” He was so mad. Then the next day, we go to the set and we’re shooting the scene that was in the laundromat, where Bill Macy is doing his laundry, and all the guys in the crew hold up a big sign that says, “Pretty is as pretty does.” And I said, “Do you guys really think that’s amusing?” It just went on and on.
But, of course, all this time, Art Carney was just “hail fellow, well met.” He was so dear, honest to God. He would play the piano. Someplace on the set we had a piano, and he’d play it. The crew just adored Art. It was only me they loathed. [Laughs.] At one point, I said, “Look, you guys go on to the next movie and it doesn’t matter. I have to try and get another movie!” But later I saw it printed in Time, and it was the exact opposite: “You guys have to try and get another movie. I’ll just go on to my next movie.” Okay, that’s it, now you’ve heard that story.
Homicide: Life On The Street (1996)—“Rose Halligan”
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)—“Rhonda Johnson”
LT: I loved [Homicide], too. Oh, darn it, I got nominated, but I could’ve won that damned Emmy! [Laughs.] But we shot that last scene first, and I just wasn’t prepared. I didn’t really have my heels dug in yet. Of course, what I should’ve done was, I should’ve performed. Because, you know, the opera was playing in the house behind me, and even though I was handcuffed to the porch swing, I should’ve. Because I’d learned that Somnambulist aria. [Sings a bit of the La Sonnambula aria, then starts laughing.] Later I went to see Master Class, and when Zoe Caldwell started singing that, I thought, “Oh, my God!” I almost starting singing it in the audience, because I’d worked on it for so long. So, yeah, I thought, “Why didn’t I do that?” I’ve lamented that always, that I was just too… You go to a new city and a new show, and you’re kind of like the new kid in school, so you don’t step out just yet. But I know that if I had sung that, if I had performed that… because there’s all that sobbing in the aria. [Offers mock sobbing, starts laughing again.] All that grief! It would’ve been so perfect!
AVC: At the time, seeing you appear on Homicide was an unprecedented event. You’d never done a guest spot on a TV drama at that point. How did you end up doing that one?
LT: They just called me and offered it to me. I remember I had a thing in my ear in order to keep on the beat of the music. But I wasn’t supposed to be a good singer. I was supposed to be a teacher. So I didn’t have to sing well. When I did Prairie Home Companion, I called Bob Altman, because I was studying every single day for three months to try to hold the harmony with Meryl [Streep], because Meryl is a good singer. I called Bob and said, “I don’t think Rhonda’s going to be a very good singer.” [Laughs.] And he says, “Ah, if she can’t sing well, she just can’t sing well!”
Nine To Five (1980)—“Violet Newstead”
LT: You know, Jane Fonda produced Nine To Five and created it for herself, Dolly [Parton], and me. But I turned it down at first. I was shooting The Incredible Shrinking Woman, which was a real trial. We were shooting for seven months. We finally had to shut it down just so I could go make Nine To Five. It was just a lot of stuff. Plus, Shrinking Woman had come on the heels of Moment By Moment, where we’d had such a disaster, and we were just in agony over that, anyway. But we went ahead and starting shooting Shrinking Woman, and one thing and another… blah blah blah, I won’t go into it, but it was a long, long shoot and very physical, with a lot of running around on scaffolding 30 feet high with no railings, because it was supposed to be a lab table.
So what happened was that I was on the set of Shrinking Woman one night, and I hadn’t said “yes” to Nine To Five yet, which was just unforgivable of me because of Jane Fonda. So they came to me and said, “They’ve got to have an answer,” because I just kept stringing them along, and I said, “Well, if it has to be now, then I’m saying no.” So I go home and I tell my partner Jane, “I turned down to Nine To Five,” and she said, “This is the worst thing you’ve ever done! How can you do that to Jane? She created this movie for you and Dolly, and you just cannot do that. This is going to be a terrific movie!” And I said… [Hesitates.] I’m telling you too much.
AVC: I promise you, you absolutely are not.
LT: No, I am. I know in my heart I am. [Laughs.] I mean, there were things like… I didn’t like certain jokes in the movie, but they always got big laughs. Colin [Higgins] always knew where the laughs were and the timing. For instance, I didn’t like when we’re all at the bar and we’re supposed to be loaded, and I say, “Are you a woman or a wouse?” And then I didn’t like when Jane had to say, “And if I’m doing M&Ms,” because she doesn’t know what S&M is, and stuff like that, I was like, “Oh, this is just too lame. Nobody’s going to laugh at that.” But, of course, they do laugh, and quite heartily.
And there were times when I’d say to Colin… There’s a scene in Hart’s office, where Hart is pontificating about playing football and how girls don’t know what it is to be part of a team and all that stuff, and of course it was very funny. But earlier, I’d said in the outer office, “I’ve never seen anybody leapfrog so fast… and I’ve got the bad back to prove it,” which was a line that my partner Jane gave me and I threw in. So when Hart’s talking about football, I said to Colin, “Can I lean over and say to Jane, ‘Or leapfrog’?” But Colin said, “They’ll never hear you.” Well, I chewed on that for a while, but when the movie came out, the audience is laughing so much at Dabney [Coleman] that they wouldn’t have heard it. Colin seemed to know every beat. It was astonishing. Anyway, at some point, I called them back up and told them I wanted my part in the movie back. [Laughs.]
AVC: You, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda would seem to be a very unlikely trio, but there was real chemistry between the three of you.
LT: Yeah. And for years, we tried to make a sequel, but it just never worked out. There were several scripts, but after Colin died, we sort of gave up on that. Which is a shame. I wish we’d done it, if only just for the sake of doing it.
Flirting With Disaster (1996)—“Mary Schlichting”
I Heart Huckabees (2004)—“Vivian”
LT: First of all, David O. Russell is brilliant and extraordinary, and I have great affection for him. I didn’t know him from Adam when I got the bid to do Flirting With Disaster, but the script was so hilarious. And I saw his student movie, Spanking The Monkey, which he made for $80,000. You could just see that he had an unusual touch. So I did that movie, and it was fun doing it. I don’t remember too many hassles or anything. I know he and Ben [Stiller] didn’t get on great. I witnessed a couple of altercations between him and Ben. Not too heated, but a little bit. We were on a movie set, for God’s sake. All kinds of things happen, especially if you’re struggling with a movie. Everybody wants it to be great, and temperaments can just be really raw at times, but then a great deal of the time you’re having a ball. There’s no predicting it. But thank heavens Flirting was before too much [cell-phone] video shooting was going on. [Laughs.]
Anyway, I had a good friendship with David, because I really liked him and admired him. I thought Three Kings was great, and everything he did was different. The guy just had a different perspective. So when I got the part in Huckabees, especially because I was going to be with Dustin [Hoffman], I thought it was great. I was very excited. And I already loved Jude Law. I’d seen him in The Talented Mr. Ripley. He was also extraordinary. And Naomi [Watts], I don’t know if she’d done Mulholland Drive yet—I can never get the chronology right on this stuff—so I don’t know where I’d seen her, but, anyway, they really had great people. [Mark] Wahlberg and Jason [Schwartzman].
That movie was a free-for-all, though. You should’ve seen the footage that never made it to the screen. The movie was sort of in trouble, because it was so scattershot and crazy and so much stuff was going on. And we would just suddenly shoot something. David would get an idea—or maybe he’d had it for a day or two, I don’t even know—and suddenly we’d be doing it. But actors love that. We’d start dancing and doing stuff. Stuff I never even saw the footage of. Anyway, at some point, someone knew that they had to re-edit the movie in some way, because it was hard to follow. And how he did it, I don’t know, but we went back and shot for one or two days. In the initial movie, Isabelle [Huppert], Dustin, and I were a love triangle. We’d been a threesome, we’d all been lovers of each other at different times, and then Dustin and I abandoned her in France. This isn’t in the movie, I don’t think. But we abandoned her, and that’s when her philosophy became so nihilistic, and ours was more positive, more inclusive. In fact, that scene in the car that never got in the movie, the scene that went viral, where we’re having a showdown? [Laughs.] They re-edited it so it looks like we’re working together, in a way, to give our clients both sides of the picture.
But I adore that movie. I love it. Every time I watch it, I fall more in love with David. And everyone who asks me about it, either they absolutely hate that movie and say something like, “Oh, that meshuggeneh movie,” or whatever, or they absolutely love it. Of course, young people love it. College kids loved it. Or at least that’s my experience. I won’t say that carte blanche, but that’s my experience.
So, yeah, we got in a couple of fights. [Laughs.] But I never expected it to be… I knew that the video existed, because I heard that it would make the rounds of the agencies, but I’d never seen it. But it didn’t bother me. I mean, I wasn’t pleased that I went crazy, and I was embarrassed that I did. But I was doing an interview, just like I’m doing with you right now, with a guy from Miami, I get up in the morning to do this phoner, and he says, “What do you think of the video on YouTube?” This is, like, four years after the fact, so I go, “I don’t know, what is it?” And then I proceeded to find out, and I said, “Well, what can I say? You see it there on film. There’s nothing to say about it except that I’m sorry I behaved that way, and I imagine David’s sorry, too.”
Sometimes people would say, “Honey, I saw that video. You were fantastic!” And I’d say, “Well, which one did you see? Did you see the one in the car or the office?” [Laughs.] Because sometimes they’d only have seen the one in the office, where David’s throwing things at me, so I’d be like, “Oh, well, you should see the one in the car, too.” I don’t think I need to go into any more detail, but there you have it. I will say that any time anything goes wrong for David, I always think about those videos and feel bad. Of course he did very well with The Fighter, but I’m just always so worried that he’s not going to be able to make films because of people thinking about those.
The X-Files (1998)—“Lydia”
LT: Oh, yeah! That one… Well, when X-Files came on, I asked to meet with Chris Carter, because I wanted to get on the show. [Laughs.] I went over to see him, and he said, “Well, Lily, we rarely cast anybody who’s really recognizable because it stretches the credibility.” And I thought, “Well, that’s a kiss-off.” And then three years later, I’m driving in my car and my cell phone rings, and it’s Chris, and he says, “I just got an idea, and I’m writing it right now.” And that was it. I went and did it, and it was great. I loved that show.
The West Wing (2002-2006)—“Deborah Fiderer”
LT: It was kind of the same thing with The West Wing as it was with The X-Files. I loved The West Wing, and I just couldn’t believe I wasn’t on that show. [Laughs.]
AVC: Not only did you end up on it, but you became a regular.
LT: Yeah. Kathryn Joosten and I became great friends when I met her on Murphy Brown, when she was playing one of Murphy’s secretaries, and we just hit it off right away. She was just terribly funny and such a straight shooter. But, of course, they didn’t hire anybody for a year because of her popularity as Mrs. Landingham. She was very beloved. But I followed her into West Wing, and then she got me the job for that one little arc on Desperate Housewives.
Desperate Housewives (2008-2009)—“Roberta Simmons”
LT: Kathryn Joosten said, “Marc [Cherry] is writing a sister into the show. Why don’t I tell him you’ll do it?” I said, “Great, okay.” So that’s how it happened. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. She just got me that part by saying, “Lily’ll do it.” And then I became very active in the Academy because she brought me into it. [Sighs.] I just took the rest of her term as the governor of the Performers Peer Group. People who knew her actively adored her, and we all miss her terribly, because nobody was so irascible, so outspoken, so wouldn’t-take-any-bullshit from anybody… She was just outrageously funny and totally on the money. You don’t find very many people like that. But she’d been a psychiatric nurse for years before she’d been an actor, and then she had all this quite terrific success, because she’s nominated for her third Emmy this year.
Murphy Brown (1996-1998)—“Kay Carter-Shepley”
LT: I wasn’t close friends with Candice Bergen, but I was friendly with her and had known her for many years, just in the business and everything. I think my agent was the agency for Murphy Brown, and they just called. When did I start that? ’96? Because I still have a cat named Murphy because they offered me the show the day I got this cat, just by coincidence. She’s… 16? Seems like she’s older than that. She’s still very kitten-like. Anyway, they just called me and offered me the part. I don’t know why. Grant [Shaud] was leaving. I never did know why he left, but they were going to have a new boss and all that stuff, and they called and offered it to me, and I said, “Okay.” And at the same time… Was it Warner Bros.? I guess it was. Anyway, they also gave me a pilot deal, which we never really were able to come to any agreement on. Every time Jane and I would come up with something, they’d change it so much that we’d say, “Well, wait, we’ll try to think of something else.” We actually had a commitment to go on the air, but it never came to pass, which I regret. I should’ve just gone on the air, and then we could’ve massaged it as it was on the air.
The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe (1991)—herself /several characters
AVC: Given how long and how consistently you’d been developing original characters, it seems almost surprising that it took as long as it did for you to produce a film version of one of your stage performances.
LT: Well, we were pretty leery of doing it, but we thought, “Maybe we could do it in a different way.” Because you can’t really film a stage production. But then we thought it might be interesting if we intercut live action with the sets, so we ended up shooting it twice—once with an audience, once without—and I went back and rebuilt it, taking every laugh out. Because I could do it myself, I could find the beginning of a beat or whatever I needed, and I was able to literally take out all the laughs.
AVC: Can you speak a bit to what went on between you and Nick Broomfield in regards to his film and your film?
LT: Oh, you mean the documentary? Well, that actually started out because of our doctor, Dr. Elsie Giorgi. She’s dead now, but she was a very well-known doctor in [Beverly Hills]. A lot of celebrities went to her. She was at Einstein’s deathbed, she never tired of telling you. [Laughs.] She was a character. I can’t tell you how great she was. But Elsie’s best friend was Joan Churchill’s mother, and it seems to me that’s how it came about. Not through Nick, but through Joan. Joan was a documentarian and Nick was… the father of her child, I guess. It’s been so long I can’t remember everything as far as the exact details. Anyway, we met, we agreed on them doing kind of a behind-the-scenes, making-of documentary about The Search, and they were going to be doing it for PBS. But that ended badly.
They asked us for access to our special and we gave them anything they wanted, but then one day my agent Sam Cohn called because he was trying to make a deal with HBO to air The Search. I guess Nick and Joan had gone to HBO and tried to sell theirs, too. And Sam called me and says, “What are you doing, darling? They’re out trying to sell the documentary, and I’m trying to sell the show!” And I didn’t know anything about it, because I thought they were doing it for PBS. Now all of a sudden they’re trying to sell it to HBO? Well, so were we! [Laughs.] So, anyway, that’s sort of what the falling-out was about. That, and we felt that it was degrading our show.
No, I won’t even say “degrading.” It was disserving our show, because theirs had all of these monologues in it from our show, which we had not really agreed to, either. I mean, we’re talking, like, full character monologues. If it had been for PBS, maybe they could have done the show more genuinely, because there wouldn’t have been a demand for that much, but the way they edited it, when they finally showed us a version of it, I was just crestfallen. They’d taken The Search and kind of reduced it to all the sexual references. So I was very miserable about that. It became more of a documentary about me as a performer, and then there were the monologues and stuff. That’s my recollection of it, anyway. I’m sure I have a copy of it somewhere on the shelf, but I haven’t looked at it for a long time. Anyway, we filed suit over it, and Jane and I did win, so they had to cease and desist and not show the documentary except… I know we allowed them some latitude. I think maybe they could show it within a festival of their work. Something like that.
The Beverly Hillbillies (1993)—“Miss Jane Hathaway”
LT: That’s another one I didn’t take for ages. I said, “I don’t want to play Miss Hathaway! I’m tired of playing these spinster roles!” Plus, people loved Nancy Kulp. I said, “She was too popular, I don’t want to step into her shoes.” But they kept printing that I was going to do it, and finally my own precious mother called me and said, “Oh, I heard you’re going to play Miss Hathaway! Oh, you’re going to be so funny!” [Laughs.] And I thought, “Well, the cosmos is trying to tell me something.” Plus, Penelope Spheeris, who directed it, was a friend of mine, so I hated to turn it down. So I finally called up and said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And I had fun doing it. I love Dabney Coleman, anyway. I don’t know if you knew that I got him the part in Nine To Five. And Elizabeth Wilson [who played Roz], for that matter. Jane and I were such fans of Liz Wilson. I used to go see her at the Judson Church in the Village; we’d just adored her. When I was going to do the character of Mrs. Beasly on my first special, I said, “You know who’d be better in this part? Liz Wilson.”
12 Miles Of Bad Road (2008)—“Amelia Shakespeare”
AVC: We recently did a piece about shows that were produced but were never aired properly, and your HBO series, 12 Miles Of Bad Road, was featured.
LT: Well, there’s another one I thought should’ve had more of a chance. Have you seen any of the episodes?
AVC: Only clips, unfortunately.
LT: Yeah, well, they ordered 10 episodes, we did six, then a hiatus came during the writer’s strike and they just… I don’t know what the real story is. I can’t really know. But Chris Albrecht had bought 12 Miles for HBO, but then he got involved in that fracas of abusing his girlfriend in the parking lot, and he resigned. And the new people just did not like the show. Well… the story I always heard was that they fought with Harry [Thomason] and Linda [Bloodworth-Thomason] over one thing and another. And the next thing we knew, they weren’t going to air it, they weren’t going to continue filming it, they weren’t going to do anything, even though they’d spent $25 million on it. The sets were elaborate, because the characters were so rich. I thought we were really coming together as an ensemble. Every friend I gave the tapes to, they all wanted to know, “What happens? We want to see the next one!” It was this big, sprawling soap opera. But it didn’t go.
AVC: It’s amazing that they didn’t at least release it on DVD, if only to try and recoup some of their investment.
LT: I know! I don’t know why they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t even air it, which is crazy. I mean, they air so much stuff. I think there’s a financial advantage to airing it, isn’t there? I never really got it. I thought it was a bit nutty.
Moment By Moment (1978)—“Trisha”
The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981)—“Pat Kramer”/ “Judith Beasley” / “Telephone Operator”
AVC: You mentioned both Moment By Moment and The Incredible Shrinking Woman in a manner that sounded like you didn’t really want to discuss them a great deal.
LT: Oh, I don’t care. That’s just the way things go, you know? But I will say that after people just laid on it and laid on it, I said to one of the movie critics for The New York Times—I can’t think of her name right now and I don’t think she writes there anymore—“I’m not going to discuss Moment By Moment because it’s too long ago, and it doesn’t do me any good.” For years that’s all anybody ever wanted to talk about, because John [Travolta] was such a big star.
AVC: What was the experience like of working with your partner Jane as your director on Moment To Moment?
LT: Oh, that was hard as hell. It’s not Jane’s temperament to do that. She’s too genteel, too Southern, too kind, too empathetic. It’s too much to go into it. I’m not going to even talk about it. We loved John, though. John had come to see Appearing Nightly, our first Broadway show, and he loved it so much that he went back and… He had a three-movie deal with Robert Stigwood, and he told Stigwood that he wanted to do the third movie with us. And we’re thinking, “Yeah, okay, that’ll be fun!” [Laughs.] And it just wasn’t for us. It didn’t work out. But we didn’t know we’d get whacked over the head for it! We’d seen movies come and movies go, but never anything like that. And we hated to have let John down, because he’d been riding so high and all that stuff.
AVC: You already indicated that Shrinking Woman was a rough shoot, but the concept—chemical additives in products can have untold effects—is one that still resonates today.
LT: Well, that also went through lots of changes. Initially, we had wanted the bad people, the suits, the diabolical schemers, to be Mr. Whipple and Mrs. Olson. [Laughs.] All those people that were really identified with a product back in those days. And they would’ve played it sinister, too. We even got it cleared, just as long as we didn’t make any reference to their products. I think that would’ve been much more satirical. But I don’t know, it just never happened.
The Player (1992)—herself
Blue In The Face (1995)—“Waffle Eater”
AVC: Lastly, what was up with your role in Blue In The Face?
LT: [Laughs.] I was doing something else at the time—I was on the road—and I got a call saying, “Do you want to do this?” But I had to go back home to California first, because that blonde wig I wore? I had that wig at home, which I’d had made for something else but hadn’t used it. When they told me I was supposed to be a guy panhandling on the street, trying to get money to buy a Belgian waffle, I said, “Okay, that sounds like fun.”
I just thought it was an interesting proposition that they were shooting another movie, Smoke, and because they had all those actors and all that equipment and crew, they were going to try and improvise a second movie. I said, “Okay,” because that appealed to me. So I went home, got that wig and that little soul-patch and moustache or whatever, and then I came back to New York and just did it. We just improvised it. I pulled a costume together with the costumer, and we did it. I’m sure we shot it in an hour. But that’s how that happened. If people hit you at the right time with the right notion, you’re liable to do it.
It’s just like The Player. I’d do anything for Robert Altman, anyway, but he called me and they were shooting right over near my house in Los Feliz. He said, “Come over tomorrow, you and Scott Glenn, I want you to play these actors who are shooting the dailies that the suits are watching.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “It’s in an old hotel room with a neon sign outside.” So I said, “Okay.” [Laughs.] But as I said, I was always happy to do anything for Altman.