Honoring Lily and Jane: A lifetime of love and companionship

On Friday March 16 beloved comedienne Lily Tomlin and her longtime life and creative partner, writer Jane Wagner, will be honored by the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. The public is invited to the 4 p.m. Walk of Stars dedication ceremony at The Corridor, 515 N Palm Canyon. A champagne reception, hosted by Mark Anton, Scott Histed, and The Corridor merchants, immediately follows the ceremony.

Tomlin, of course, rose to national prominence in 1969 on the television series, Laugh In, with her characterizations of irascible telephone operator Ernestine and devilish six-year-old Edith Ann. Shortly thereafter Tomlin met Jane Wagner, who had just made her television writing debut with the acclaimed CBS teleplay J.T. The duo hooked up, co-writing six television comedy specials in which Tomlin starred. They also co-wrote and produced the Grammy winning album Edith Ann: And That’s the Truth, and the Grammy nominated albums Modern Scream and On Stage. These successes began an award winning personal and creative alliance that has lasted more than forty years.

Their best known creative collaboration, of course, is the critically acclaimed Broadway smash, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by Wagner and performed by Tomlin. Tomlin has starred in more than 25 movies including Wagner’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman, All of Me, 9 to 5, Tea With Mussolini, and Robert Altman’s Nashville, for which she received an Oscar nomination. Tomlin has received six Emmys, two Tony Awards, a Grammy, and the prestigious Mark Twain Prize. Wagner has won two Peabody Awards, four Emmys, a Writer’s Guild Award, and the seldom-given NY Drama Critics Circle Special Award.

The BottomLine recently had the pleasure of interviewing the long-term couple about their life, their careers, and their upcoming Walk of Fame star.

TBL: I’m surprised you two haven’t gotten a Palm Springs star yet? What took so long?

Lily Tomlin: I don’t know. We have property there. We don’t live there full-time or anything, but still… I don’t know what’s required, what the criteria is.

Jane Wagner: I’m not used to getting stars anyway.

The characters created by the two of you have always invoked a deep-rooted empathy in the audience. How much of either or both of you is in those characters?

Lily: Probably varying degrees, depending on the character. Something like Edith Ann, I informed her with my own childhood. And then Jane always takes things to a much higher level, verbally.

Do you think of Jane as your voice, sometimes?

Lily: Yeah, of course.

Jane, you’re such an integral part of the creative team, yet you’ve always seemed more comfortable letting Lily get most of the attention.

Jane: Well, she was famous before we met. I’m not really famous. I wasn’t then and I’m not now. I don’t try to be modest, but I’ve stayed in the background for whatever reason, and nobody has wanted me to come forth that much. As a matter of fact, sometimes people resent it when Lily says, “Well, Jane wrote that.” I think people don’t necessarily want to hear that.

Lily: It’s always like that with performers and writers. The writing part, I think it was Thalberg who said, “The writer is the most important person in the business, and they must never find out.”

Jane: I think that’s true. Lily was saying I should write a book of my quotes, because invariably she gets all the credit for them. And it’s not Lily’s fault. People would just rather have a quote with her name than my name, because not that many people know my name. But that’s my nature, to be a bit reclusive.

The world of words is a much safer place.

Jane: Maybe. A blank sheet of paper is pretty scary, too. Not as scary as getting a star, though. I don’t know why I agreed to that of all things.

Do the two of you get along all the time, or do you fight like normal people?

Jane: Sometimes we seem very evolved, other times we’re very primitive. We still can push each other’s buttons, but we also recognize beforehand the red alert that if I say this or do this, it’s going to push her button. And we’re clever enough to avoid doing that.

How do you balance your professional and personal lives, especially with Lily being on the road so much?

Lily: Sometimes we go together, especially if it’s a big show or I’m going to be out for a long time. If we were doing Search or something, then we would be out there together working on it. Usually, though, I go out for two or three days at a time, sometimes a long weekend. Very seldom do I go away for more than a week. I didn’t work at all in December and most of January. I took the summer off, too.

Jane: I try to join her when she’s going interesting places.

Lily: She’s not going to Skokie with me.

Jane, do you think Signs should have won the Pulitzer or the Tony?

Jane: I don’t know. I guess that’s the work that I’ve gotten the most attention for. I haven’t been that prolific. I’ve written a lot of things that I’ve not followed through on.

Lily: I would like her to have gotten the Pulitzer and the Tony like mad. I’m probably more ambitious for her than she is for herself.

Jane: It would’ve been nice.

Lily: I won the Tony for Best Actress in a Drama, but they wouldn’t consider the play itself for an award. The Tony Awards would not let the play be eligible as Best Play because they felt it wasn’t a play.

Jane: Now it would be considered a play. Things have changed.

Over the years, Lily, you’ve worked with many of Hollywood’s best directors. Who is your favorite, and why?

Lily: I would have to say Robert Altman. First of all, he gave me my first movie when nobody else would. I was fresh off of Laugh In and he put me in a dramatic role in Nashville, and he never looked back. And nobody else is like Altman was. He was just so freewheeling. He was completely unflappable, completely accessible, and he was never domineering or patriarchal in any way. Being on his movie set was like being on a playground, and you weren’t afraid to do anything on that playground because you knew there would never be any drive-bys.

What would you like tourists to say when they see your star in Palm Springs?

Lily: First of all, I just want to say that I love that we have the star together. I like it because our relationship is right out there in the open, and I like it because Jane gets acknowledgement she deserves. I took the Mark Twain Prize, they had wanted to give it to me much earlier, but I didn’t want it unless they would give it to Jane and me together. Finally, years later, Jane encouraged me to take it, and I did, and I tried to acknowledge her as fully as I could that night. The point is, never in my wildest dreams could I write in the fashion of Mark Twain, so that prize should have been her honor. I hope that when tourists see our star, they’ll recognize that and talk about what a great team we are.

If you go

Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner receive their star 4 pm, Friday March 16 at The Corridor, 515 N Palm Canyon Drive. A champagne reception immediately follows the ceremony. The event is free and open to the public.

ALSO: Lily Tomlin performs at the McCallum Theatre, Saturday March 17 and Sunday March 18. For tickets or information log on to mccallumtheatre.com or call the McCallum Theatre Box Office at (760) 340-ARTS.