The Untold Truth Of Lily Tomlin

Lily Tomlin is such an established part of the pop-culture firmament that it's easy to forget how long she's been around. As Tomlin's website reminds, she first rocketed to national fame when she joined the cast of zany television phenomenon "Laugh-In" in 1969, delighting viewers with such characters as precocious child Edith Anne and obnoxious telephone operator Ernestine.

From that launching pad, Tomlin went on to conquer every medium she ventured into, recording hit comedy albums, starring in award-winning television specials, and eventually venturing into movies (via IMDb). These days, Tomlin remains as popular as ever thanks to her role in the Netflix comedy "Grace and Frankie." Tomlin is also a longtime feminist and out-and-proud lesbian whose relationship with wife Jane Wagner (per Tomlin's website) has prospered for more than four decades.

A trailblazing comedian and acclaimed actor, Tomlin has received countless awards over the years, including the Kennedy Center's prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which she received in 2003. While her name may be familiar to millions throughout the world, there's still a lot about her that even her most diehard fans may not know. Keep on reading to discover the untold truth of Lily Tomlin.

Lily Tomlin never officially came out as gay

For much of her career, Lily Tomlin's homosexuality was the worst-kept secret in Hollywood, since she and wife/creative partner Jane Wagner (they married on New Year's Eve of 2013) have visibly been a couple since the early 1970s. Whenever the topic was broached, Tomlin typically deflected with humor. Speaking with The Advocate, she recalled guesting on "The Tonight Show" when Johnny Carson told her, "You're very attractive, yet you've never married." She countered by telling the oft-divorced host, "Well, you've done it a few times — how is it working out?" 

As Windy City Times reported, Tomlin told a gay newspaper in 1999 that "I never officially came out in any kind of really public way... I just always lived very simply and openly."

During a 2019 appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," Tomlin revealed she turned down an offer to come out publicly on the cover of Time in 1975, in much the same way DeGeneres herself did in 1994. "It was a hard decision to make," Tomlin told DeGeneres. "I fell down on the side of probably after what you went through, probably good sense." 

She voiced the main character in a beloved children's cartoon

Among the many characters Lily Tomlin has portrayed, one remains a favorite with those who grew up watching "The Magic School Bus" during the 1990s: adventure-seeking educator Ms. Frizzle, driver of the titular bus in the animated children's TV series. Speaking with Out, Tomlin recalled watching the show with the young niece and nephew of her wife, Jane Wagner. "They didn't believe I'm Ms. Frizzle, so Ms. Frizzle would say something and then they'd turn real fast to me and say, 'You say it!' I had to audition for Ms. Frizzle," she quipped.

She reprised her role for a 2017 Netflix reboot, "The Magic School Bus Rides Again," this time as Professor Frizzle, with "Saturday Night Live" star Kate McKinnon voicing a new character, younger sister Fiona Frizzle.

This wasn't Tomlin's only animated role, however. In 2018, she played Peter Parker's Aunt May in the mind-bending animated Marvel feature "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." In an interview with Screen Rant, Tomlin explained how her take on Aunt May differed from those of the actor's previous screen characterizations. "She's got a good heart, but she's tough," said Tomlin. "She doesn't suffer any nonsense or excuses."

She once stormed off a TV talk show because of another guest's sexist remarks

One of Lily Tomlin's most legendary television appearances came during a 1972 visit to "The Dick Cavett Show." The host asked Tomlin's fellow guest, actor Chad Everett, if he owned any pets. He responded by listing his menageries, which included horses, dogs, "and a wife." Everett may have found his joke amusing, but the audience didn't, meeting his quip with just a few sporadic chuckles. However, he doubled down by describing his wife as "the most beautiful animal I own." Tomlin was taken aback. "You own?" she blurted out. Tomlin then stood up and declared, "I have to leave," calmly strolling off the set as the audience applauded.

Shortly after Tomlin's abrupt exit, Everett noted that Tomlin's walk-off was "disturbing," expressing his desire that she'd return, saying, "She can't be serious." (Spoiler alert: She was.) "It was a perfectly pure act," Tomlin later told The New York Times of her spontaneous walkout. "I felt angels walked me off."

She also recalled the moment in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, insisting that when she marched off the set, she wasn't angry. "I was in a completely relaxed, balanced kind of state," she described her state of mind at the time.

Her first movie role earned her an Oscar nomination

In 1975, Lily Tomlin made her movie debut in the Robert Altman classic "Nashville," portraying Linnea Reese, a gospel singer and mother of two deaf children. While The New York Times praised Tomlin for her "spectacular dramatic debut," the performance also won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. As she told the Times in a subsequent interview, she wasn't as surprised by her nomination as those who had primarily known her for "Laugh-In" seemed to be. "I've always been confident I should be in movies or in any medium that I wanted to work in," she said.

Tomlin never did win that Oscar — and, as of this writing, has not been nominated since. However, as Showbiz 411 pointed out, she went on to maintain both her stardom and her relevance for a solid half-century, earning herself a Golden Globe nomination (one of seven during her career, per the official Golden Globe Awards website) for her role in the 2015 film "Grandma." Tomlin offered her theory for her enduring popularity. "I was never a movie star," she explained to Showbiz 411. "I was always a co-star."

Lily Tomlin starred in Broadway's first one-woman show

In 1977, Lily Tomlin made history on Broadway with the launch of her one-woman show, "Appearing Nitely." Written by Jane Wagner, the show was the first-ever one-woman show to play the Great White Way. As the Journal of Popular Culture put it, "Appearing Nitely" was a show that "defied easy categorization. It wasn't stand-up, it wasn't a play, it wasn't performance art." Instead, it was a "collection of monologues," with Tomlin embodying 15 different characters "with no props, no set, in simple black slacks and a gray blouse." That year, Tomlin won a "special Tony Award" in honor of her performance.

She returned to Broadway in 1985, noted the Internet Broadway Database, with a new show, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." Written, once again, by Wagner, this play won Tomlin a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. In 2000, she mounted a revival of "Search," winning her another Tony Award, according to The Morning Call. "I love stage performance most of all," Tomlin told the publication of her love for performing live. Discussing how her live performance style has evolved, she added, "Over the years I've gotten more relaxed, informal, and hopefully funnier."

She tried to quit the hit movie 9 to 5 because she hated her performance

Lily Tomlin famously starred alongside Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in the iconic 1980 comedy "9 to 5." With international and domestic revenues of more than $100 million, the feminist revenge comedy is the biggest box office hit in Tomlin's roster of IMDb credits – and it's also led to a decades-long friendship among the three women.

As Fonda revealed during a joint appearance with Tomlin on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," she became hellbent on getting Tomlin to co-star with her in "9 to 5" after seeing her Broadway show. However, it took a lot of convincing to get Tomlin to sign on. "I didn't want to do a cheap comedy," Tomlin explained. "I was looking for something more serious." 

Fonda ultimately succeeded, saying, "It took a year to convince her, and then after a week of shooting she asked my producing partner to let her go, and she'd give the week's money back — I'm not kidding." The reason, Tomlin revealed, was that she saw early footage of her performance and didn't feel confident in her work. "I was not doing a good job, and thought, 'Oh, I'm going to be horrible in this,'" she said. Thankfully, Tomlin had a change of heart when she saw the following day's dailies, "and I was so good!"

Lily Tomlin's decades-long friendship with Jane Fonda inspired a TED Talk

Thirty-five years after working together in "9 to 5," Lily Tomlin reunited with Jane Fonda for the Netflix comedy "Grace and Frankie," playing longtime frenemies who bond when their secretly gay husbands (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) leave them for each other. The show was met with positive reviews and enough viewership to lead to an impressive seven-season run (it's final episodes will air in 2022 and will feature a nostalgic reunion of sorts) — and Tomlin is surely sad to see it come to an end.

In fact, Tomlin and Fonda are such good friends that they candidly discussed their close relationship in a TED Talk. "I look for someone who has a sense of fun, who's audacious, who's forthcoming, who has politics, who has even a small scrap of passion for the planet, someone who's decent, has a sense of justice and who thinks I'm worthwhile," said Tomlin of what she sees in Fonda — who shares her passion for activism — earning applause from the audience.

Fonda then shared her perspective. "You know ... I don't even know what I'd do without my women friends," she said. "They make me stronger, they make me smarter, they make me braver. They tap me on the shoulder when I might be in need of course-correcting." 

The comedian played an influential role in the launch of Saturday Night Live

Lily Tomlin was one of the first stars to host "Saturday Night Live," hosting the show's sixth-ever episode in 1975. However, her relationship with "SNL" actually goes far deeper: As series creator Lorne Michaels recalled in an interview with Rolling Stone, his entire path changed when he met Tomlin after leaving his native Toronto for Los Angeles. "Lily looked at my stuff from Canada and asked me to work with her," said Michaels. "She was the first person I met who really cared about quality and getting it all right."

Their collaboration resulted in "Lily," an Emmy-winning 1973 TV special that led to two more, also co-produced by Michaels. Those specials, as Rolling Stone noted, grabbed the attention of NBC exec Dick Ebersol, who asked Michaels to develop "a comedy show, frank and intelligent, for young, urban adults." "Saturday Night Live" was born.

Speaking with The New York Times in 1976, Michaels praised Tomlin for infusing her style with a "female esthetic" that resulted in a type of comedy that hadn't been done before. "Lily, by refusing to be hostile, by making herself vulnerable, is breaking the mold," he said.

The star is one award away from an EGOT

To say Lily Tomlin has won a few awards in her day is like saying Elon Musk has made a couple of bucks. Tomlin, in fact, is one of those rare performers who is just one win away from the EGOT, the term for winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.

Tomlin has six Emmys (from a whopping 25 nominations), one Grammy (for her 1971 comedy album "This is a Recording"), and three Tonys (for "Appearing Nitely" and "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life In the Universe," including a "special Tony Award) — but no Oscar (she nabbed her sole nomination for her movie debut in the 1975 drama "Nashville"). 

Interviewed by The Guardian, Tomlin admitted she would like to someday win an Academy Award — not just to complete the EGOT, but "just because I'd like to make something out of it," she teased, but refused to reveal what exactly that something was. "I don't want to tell you what I'd like to do," she said cryptically, "because then I won't be able to do it."

Her steamy 1978 romance movie with John Travolta was an epic flop

Lily Tomlin's Oscar nomination for "Nashville" opened the door to a full-fledged movie career, yet her third movie nearly slammed that door shut. Written and directed by partner Jane Wagner, the 1978 film "Moment By Moment" paired Tomlin with a young John Travolta, hot off the success of "Saturday Night Fever," and proved to be an epic bomb, racking up scathing reviews and earning a measly $10.9 million at the box office.

The fallout was so severe that Tomlin and Wagner considered ending their creative partnership; as Wagner told The Morning Call, "Lily could have blamed me and cut me loose." While both actors' careers subsequently rebounded, Tomlin has continually expressed regret for "Moment By Moment." "I made the wrong choice. I felt terrible," Tomlin told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. "I didn't know what to do ... It was amazing to me that you could pick up a magazine three or four years later and still hear about it. I felt for John too — he's so sensitive."

She and wife Jane Wagner share a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Fame

As a showbiz entity, Lily Tomlin actually consists of two people, herself and wife/creative partner Jane Wagner, who has written Tomlin's material since the early 1970s. While Tomlin basks in the acclaim, Wagner prefers to remain in the background. 

However, Wagner made a rare appearance in the spotlight when the couple were jointly honored with their own star on the Palm Springs Walk of Fame. During their speeches, Tomlin paid tribute to Wagner. "I get credit for everything, people think I should be UN ambassador, I don't know what else," she said. "They think I'm so smart, but the brainy stuff really comes from her." However, Tomlin jokingly added, "She's willing to forgo that acknowledgement just so she can sleep late."

Tomlin discussed Wagner more seriously in an interview with Variety, explaining how Wagner is able to clearly express Tomlin's feelings in words, something Tomlin struggles with. "She can express in words what I feel about the world, about humans, about the struggle that we're in," Tomlin said, "and, presumably, not the inevitability of it all, something that I know speaks to other people."

She's never been a fan of exercise unlike close pal Jane Fonda

While Jane Fonda is a legit fitness guru, a leading figure in the aerobics scene of the 1980s, her pal Lily Tomlin has proven to be far less enthusiastic about exercise. That was the big reveal Tomlin made during a 2018 interview with the Connecticut Post when asked to share something people don't know about her. "I don't know how to swim very well," said Tomlin. "And I don't exercise but was very flexible and didn't really have much stiffness until later in life," she added.

To illustrate her dislike of exercise, she shared an anecdote from her time working on "9 to 5." Tomlin explained that while shooting the movie, Fonda was constantly trying to get her and the rest of the cast to "exercise with her every day. I would arrive and drag my mat away from the mirror and get behind her so she couldn't see me and just make sounds like I was exercising," she said. Despite her lack of interest in fitness, Tomlin does, however, credit Fonda for making her "very aware of my posture."

Lily Tomlin said her epic outburst on a movie set was overblown

Lily Tomlin continues to live down some leaked outtakes from the set of the 2004 film "I Heart Huckabees." In one clip, Tomlin is arguing about a scene with director David O. Russell, who erupts with a stream of profanity. In another clip, it's Tomlin who explodes with fury, spewing a string of F-bombs while co-star Dustin Hoffman hilariously tells her to "use it" in the scene. 

Discussing the scene in which she repeatedly yells "F*** you!" at Russell, she told The Guardian that what viewers don't see is Russell saying horrible things off-camera. According to Tomlin, that moment took place at the end of a long day of shooting, and she "just hit the ceiling."

Addressing her outburst with Movieline, Tomlin said the whole thing had been blown out of proportion. "David and I were friends and 20 minutes later we were back shooting ... We just both had a bad temper fit." Russell, she added, was deliberately messing with the actors with "manic and crazy" behavior, "and I just flipped out on him. Then he flipped out on me. And you know, stuff goes on. But it's nothing."

Decades in showbiz have provided her with an enviable net worth

Over the course of her career, Lily Tomlin has accumulated a fortune estimated at $20 million, according to Celebrity Net Worth

However, she'd be worth a lot more had she not been working within a Hollywood system that pays female performers a fraction of what their male counterparts receive. "Yeah, a lot of women — great movie stars — don't get paid what men do. I don't know what the disparity is, but it's probably as much as they can get away with," Tomlin told The Guardian, explaining that women now make about 74 cents to the [male] dollar compared to 59 cents back when she first became invested in the cause. "So that's not a lot of progress. But it's some progress. And we're supposed to be grateful for those crumbs."

Tomlin made headlines in 2015 when she revealed she and Jane Fonda were making the same salary on their Netflix sitcom "Grace and Frankie" as their male co-stars, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston (via IndieWire) — despite the fact that the women are the stars, and the men play supporting roles. "I'm going to try and get us paid more this year," she subsequently told The Guardian.