Metro Weekly

Tales of the Tomlin

From drawers full of dimes to superstardom, Lily Tomlin shares the richness of her journey

Lily Tomlin as Tommy Velour

Lily Tomlin as Tommy Velour

MW: Has your political involvement increased over the years?

TOMLIN: As I said earlier, Detroit was always a political city, a lot of unions. We were conscious of it. My dad was in the union. My dad was a Southern guy, basically a rural kid who grew up with 10 brothers and sisters. A tenant farmer. Really, my dad only went to the third grade. But he was innately intelligent. He would’ve been a toolmaker, but he really couldn’t write to any real extent. But he could read a blueprint and put a machine together. He would come home with these little things that he’d produced and I knew how proud he was that he was able to do that, that the toolmaker would go to him and be able to say, “I need this part. Can you put a machine together?” And he’d say to me, “Babe, this is what the old man did today.” [Laughs.] So I knew how much it meant to him. I saw the pride he had in that. So, politically, you just understand about people. You don’t intellectualize it. As a kid, you know what it is to have money or not to have money. People scraping by, getting laid-off, not having a job for five or six months.

I remember when my dad was laid off and rebuilt a lot of the porches in our old apartment house. I was really a little kid, but I can remember hanging out on a porch all day while he rebuilt a new porch and banister and steps. I was just so proud of that, that he could build those porches.

MW: Did you and your wife consider having kids?

TOMLIN: Of course we talked about it. But I don’t call Jane “my wife” at all. That’s a heterosexual stricture. When people used to ask, “Are you and Jane going to get married?” even before it was possible, when everyone was fighting for it, I would say, “Well, I was hoping the gay community could come up with something better than marriage.” Jane would say, “You’ve got to stop being so flippant about it, because the issue of marriage is really serious and important to a lot of people.” And I knew that. Especially for friends, same-sex couples, with children. They ran and got married right away.

I lightened up about it, and I do realize it’s meaningful. It’s meaningful for it to be acknowledged in the culture. I’m astonished at how far the gay movement has come in 20 years. It’s staggering.

MW: As culture and politics go, I’m guessing plenty of Washingtonians loved you on The West Wing.

TOMLIN: I loved that, too. When it came on the air, I thought, “How has it happened that I’m not in this?” I had my agent reach out to Tommy Schlamme, and Aaron Sorkin at that time. And then Mrs. Landingham was killed in that episode — no doing of mine whatsoever, believe me. She was so loved. But they planned to use Mrs. Landingham kind of as a Jiminy Cricket, but it didn’t really work for them. Kathryn Joosten became a good friend of mine. I knew her from Murphy Brown, and then later I did a stint with her on Desperate Housewives. I played her sister. We were good friends.

MW: I would think, particularly as a team with Jane Wagner, you’d have enough clout to do any project you like.

TOMLIN: Well, not quite, Will. [Laughs.] Yes, it helps, of course. But not everybody maybe feels the same about me. It happened that Aaron Sorkin liked me and was probably pleased that I wanted to be on the show.

And I am allowed to tell you — although I usually hold back because I don’t like to tell too much about upcoming projects — that Jane Fonda and I are going to do a project for Netflix. A series.

MW: Netflix is on fire right now.

TOMLIN: And they’re just great people, so easy to be with. Marta Kauffman, who was one of the creators of Friends, she’s written the first episode.

MW: It’s not a 9 to 5 reunion, is it?

TOMLIN: Aw, no. That would’ve been good. Maybe we can get Dolly in some part. That would be fun!

MW: I know I’ve got to let you go, but before I do I want to make sure you know there’s at least one group of gay fellahs quoting your 9 to 5 Violet Newstead character routinely.

TOMLIN: [Laughs.] “I know just where to stick it.”

Lily Tomlin performs Friday, March 28, at 8 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. For tickets, $27 to $81, call 301-581-5100 or visit

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.