The Stunning Transformation Of Lily Tomlin

Lily Tomlin is one of those unique actors whose career spans generations — from her time on "Laugh-In" from 1969 to 1973 all the way to her most recent turn as Frankie on the Netflix series "Grace and Frankie," Tomlin has managed to consistently keep audiences of all ages laughing. Despite that feat, Tomlin told The Guardian that she doesn't necessarily feel like she has accomplished something tremendous. As she put it, "I just feel like I've maybe done a little better than some other people. But no, I don't look back and think, 'Ah, this is perfect.'"

It might be hard to believe now, given Tomlin's prolific career in entertainment, but she actually studied a totally different field in college at Wayne State University. As fate would have it, Tomlin participated in theater while at school and fell in love with performing, eventually dropping out of school to pursue an entertainment career full-time (per Biography).

From making audiences cackle from her comedic performances to her turn to movies like 1975's "Nashville," to playing opposite her close friend Jane Fonda on "Grace and Frankie," Tomlin's career has entertained us for decades. Here's a closer look at her transformation from a one-time nursing student to the funny lady we know — and what's coming up for her next.

Lily Tomlin wouldn't trade her childhood for 'anything'

According to Biography, Lily Tomlin was born on September 1, 1939, in Detroit, Michigan. Her name at birth was Mary Jean Tomlin, though it's possible that she got her performing name later in life from her mother, whose name was Lillie. Tomlin's parents relocated to Michigan before she was born, and Tomlin has since gone on to tell MLive that she wouldn't trade her childhood for "anything." She told the publication that her old stomping grounds of Clairmount and 12th Street were an ideal place to grow up, describing her former neighborhood as "filled with people. A soup of humanity."

Tomlin elaborated, explaining that, while growing up, she met a lot of people who might have seemed different on the outside but who were really more alike than not. Though she didn't grow up wealthy, Tomlin said her experiences with people in her hometown exposed her to people in wealthier neighborhoods. She noted to MLive, "I was always conscious, politically, that there were people who had everything and who had nothing. But I was so madly in love with people and how they behaved, I went there anyway."

In fact, Tomlin still makes trips to Detroit every so often and even has family members who still live in the area, as of 2014, when the interview was published

She studied nursing before leaving college to pursue comedy

For those who have followed Lily Tomlin's career, it's nearly impossible to imagine her doing anything besides acting and comedy. However, as she told the Chicago Reader, Tomlin actually entered college intending to study medicine — though she actually enrolled in the pre-nursing program at Wayne State University instead, explaining, "I was never going to be a doctor. I wasn't a good enough student." She elaborated that she "liked the idea of being a doctor" because the field felt like a way to help others while supporting herself independently at the same time.

While in college, according to Biography, Tomlin discovered her love for theater and left school to pursue acting instead. Her path from would-be nursing student to comedian wasn't a straight shot, though. She told Interview that, like many performers, she worked a string of jobs related to the field before making it. Those jobs included performing on local Detroit, Michigan, TV shows, waitressing at Howard Johnson's, and even working as a bookkeeper.

Lily Tomlin's big break was 1969's Laugh-In

Lily Tomlin took the plunge and moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1969, the same year the comedy show "Laugh-In" began. Tomlin made her "Laugh-In" debut on December 29, 1969, and later told the Sun-Sentinel she was surprised to be recognized in the store not long after. She said, "I went to the market and a woman said,' You're the new star on Laugh-In, aren't you?' And I said, 'No, no, no! I'm not a star!'"

Tomlin was best known for playing two characters on the show: phone operator Ernestine and 5-year-old Edith Ann. Tomlin explained to TV Insider that Ernestine was a character she had invented prior to the show. In fact, "Laugh-In" producer George Schlatter saw her perform the character before asking her to join the show. "I was doing Ernestine in my [stand-up] act, which I had to beg people to book," she explained. "And George saw me ... and just loved them."

Tomlin added that the two characters were so popular, in fact, that she continues to perform them both during stand-up routines. As Tomlin explained to TV Insider, it's the least she can do, since the show changed her career. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me, absolutely. I was terribly fortunate to fall into that show at the time," she said.

Lily Tomlin moved on to movies and earned an Oscar nomination

Lily Tomlin surprised audiences when she took on the role of Linnea Reese in 1975's "Nashville." As Criterion explains, up to that point, Tomlin's work had been firmly rooted in comedy — it was unexpected for her to take on a character that has been described as "an emotional anchor in a film full of wayward souls." 

Tomlin herself actually leaned toward a more comedic role in the movie before meeting the rest of the cast but told Vanity Fair that she quickly learned to trust director Robert Altman's vision, realizing that if the rest of the cast were right for their parts, she was, too. "I must be more right for this part than I think I am. And I got nominated [for an Oscar] for it, so he must have been right," she said.

Tomlin enjoyed a few more roles in the years that immediately followed "Nashville," even appearing on "Saturday Night Live" in 1977 (per IMDb). Of course, a role that many people would go on to remember Tomlin for in the decades that followed was just around the corner, though she may not have known it yet.

The 1980 film 9-to-5 was a watershed moment for Lily Tomlin's career

In 1980, Lily Tomlin joined forces with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in the movie "9 to 5." Her participation in the movie was huge in a lot of ways: For starters, Tomlin and Fonda have gone on to collaborate more than once over the years. Fonda even said on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" that she changed the entire movie around (the film was actually based on Fonda's own idea) after seeing Tomlin perform stand-up. As Fonda explained, "I just could not believe that so many people live inside of this amazing body," she said. "And so I totally changed the entire idea of '9 to 5′ because of her, because I don't want to make a movie about secretaries if she's not in it."

Funnily enough, Tomlin actually told Fonda "No, thanks" at first. As Tomlin told the Glasgow Evening Times, she had just spent seven months on another movie and didn't think she could handle this one, too. Tomlin's partner, Jane Wagner, was the one who told her to take the role. In fact, as Tomlin put it, Wagner insisted, telling her, "This is the biggest mistake of your life. You've got to get on the phone and tell Jane Fonda you want to take back the resignation.'"

She's been with wife Jane Wagner over 50 years

Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner seem to have the kind of relationship that many people aspire to, though their partnership began as a professional one. The two were first introduced in the 1970s and have been together for over 50 years. Both are exceedingly talented — Prevention notes that Wagner is a successful writer, director, and producer. 

Tomlin told Metro Weekly that she approached Wagner first, hoping that the two could work together on Tomlin's upcoming comedy project. Wagner didn't get back to her right away, and Tomlin was surprised when she received work from Wagner a week before she was set to record the comedy album. She explained, "I persuaded her to come to California and help me produce it. Frankly, I was pretty taken with her as soon as I saw her."

Tomlin also clued Metro Weekly in on what's made their longtime relationship work. She explained that respect goes a long way. "I respect her talent and her brain and who she is as a person," she said, "and that kind of admiration and respect is a big factor in binding someone in a relationship."

Lily Tomlin is happy she never had kids

As shared by People, Lily Tomlin and her wife, Jane Wagner, got married in 2013 after being together for over four decades. While some might have expected the couple to add a child or two to their home throughout their years together, Tomlin has maintained that she's always been happy they didn't have kids. As she told The Guardian, while she can sometimes understand the appeal, she explained that parenthood just wasn't for her. She said, "We say every day, 'I'm so glad we didn't have any children.' When I think of the world now, I don't want to even deal with having to raise a child."

Tomlin also said the same goes for Wagner, though she told The Guardian they did contemplate having a family member of Wagner's assist them with conceiving a child at one point. As Tomlin shared, "She has a very handsome nephew and we thought, 'Well, we could get his sperm and I could bear his child.' I wouldn't want to, but I could."

While speaking to comedian Kevin Nealon in 2019, Tomlin doubled down on the idea that parenthood wasn't a road she was ever meant to travel. After telling Nealon the sperm donor story, she said, "I didn't really think it through. It would've been terrible if we'd have done it."

In 2004, she made headlines for fighting with the director of I Heart Huckabees

When Lily Tomlin joined the cast of 2004's "I Heart Huckabees," she probably didn't realize that the experience would result in an on-set explosion that would reverberate throughout Hollywood for years to come. Fans were shocked when a video surfaced that appeared to show Tomlin enduring verbal abuse on set from the film's director, David O. Russell.

While the video was definitely profanity-laced, it seems that Tomlin and Russell were able to make up. Tomlin later told Movieline that the experience with Russell was actually not such a big deal and likened their argument to one that many people have at home, revealing that they got right back to filming around 20 minutes after the infamous video was shot. "We were always doing something, and then we'd get manic and crazy and I just flipped out on him. Then he flipped out on me. And you know, stuff goes on," she explained to Movieline. "But it's nothing. It's like family."

Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda teamed up again for Grace and Frankie

In 2015, Lily Tomlin joined forces with Jane Fonda once again when the pair were cast as the title characters on Netflix's "Grace and Frankie." In the show, Tomlin and Fonda play a pair of wives who find out their husbands are gay and leave them to be in a relationship with one another. While Grace and Frankie don't begin the show as friends, they are thrust into a new, unexpected path, where they soon form a deep bond.

Tomlin told IndieWire that something special about the show is that it's a comedy that contains a lot of emotional depth. She explained, "The characters come up against an emotional wall that they have to either circumvent or barrel their way through. And we just want to be true to that — that's all. I mean, that's life.”

As the Observer noted, the show — which began airing its final season in August 2021 — has proven to be a career highlight for both Tomlin and Fonda alike, making the actresses relevant to a brand-new audience at what would traditionally be thought of as the tail-end of their careers. According to the Observer, "Grace and Frankie" is the kind of show that "makes powerful feminist arguments against ageism and towards sex-positivity in women, both young and old."

The star is also a passionate activist

While many of us know and love Lily Tomlin for her career, the actor has also spent quite a lot of time advocating for causes that she believes in. As shared by Look to the Stars, Tomlin and her wife, Jane Wagner, produced and narrated a documentary called "An Apology to Elephants." The site notes that Tomlin is an avowed animal rights activist who supports moving elephants out of zoos and, instead, into sanctuaries.

Tomlin and her good friend Jane Fonda are also both environmental activists, and the pair have even been arrested together while participating in Fonda's environmentally-focused #FireDrillFriday protests. One arrest occurred in December 2019, with Deadline reporting that Tomlin told the crowd in attendance that certain "corporations are making oodles of money on the front end, oodles of money on the back end," while adding, "It is beyond reprehensible."

She'll continue to work with Jane Fonda after Grace and Frankie

Although "Grace and Frankie" will air its last episodes in 2021, this doesn't mean that Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda will stop working together. In fact, The Hollywood Reporter announced in September 2021 that the two will co-star in the upcoming film "Moving On," which "centers on two old friends who meet at a funeral and resolve to exact revenge on a widower who wronged them decades earlier."

The news was likely enthusiastically received by fans of the pair who love watching them work together. It's also likely that Fonda and Tomlin are just as enthusiastic about the opportunity as their fans. After all, as Tomlin once said in an interview for Oprah.com about her friendship with Fonda, it's clear why the two of them work so well together. "People say we have a lot of chemistry," she explained. "That's because you can sense that Jane and I have been friends for so long. We have a soft spot for each other." We have to say, we see it, too.