How does it feel, having played so many roles that make people feel seen and validated, but not alienated? How does it feel to be beloved?
“Well, however many days it lasts,” Tomlin says, cheerily.
In 1962, Tomlin left college, borrowed $5 from nine friends and flew to New York to try out show business. “I was going to study mime and be a waitress,” she says, with a laugh. “That was a very cool plan at the time.”
She wore a $2 cream-colored trench coat from a thrift shop and pinned her hair on top of her head with a scarf, like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which had come out the year before. A friend let her crash in her railroad apartment over B&H Dairy on 2nd Avenue. The bathroom was down the hall, the walls were covered with curse words, and Tomlin slept on top of a box. “The roaches were un-be-lievable,” she says in her sing-song, very Lily Tomlin way, enunciating every syllable, relishing the filthiness of it all.
When Tomlin first got famous, she would sometimes get mobbed by young people. They would go crazy around her, asking her how she did it, how she made people scream with laughter. “I’d say to them, ‘Look, I don’t know anything you don’t know.’ And I had to walk away,” she says. “I couldn’t foster that feeling of either admiration that they’re feigning or—even if it’s the most sincere thing in the world, it’s not really to be fostered.” Even decades later, she uses that word—feigning—dubious that her talent could inspire so much love.
But in character, she could do anything, connect with anyone. Teenagers would sleep on the streets to be first in line to buy tickets to her shows, and she would come out dressed to the nines, in a wig, and hand out donuts as the box office opened. She toured compulsively. “I’d have to go out and tour and show the hardcore fans what certain characters were up to,” she says, like it’s obvious. Her work, her success, has been a joy. But, “It’s not infinite, it’s not magical, it’s just life.”
Tomlin grew up in Detroit, in a blue-collar, predominantly Black neighborhood. Her apartment building was on the edge of a wealthier district, which meant school was a mix of poor and middle class kids and, just streets over, the Ford family. “I saw through it so much,” she says of the extreme class differences, the racism, the way it was all swept under the rug. In grade school, teachers would make every kid stand up and say what they got for Christmas, and Tomlin would itch with anxiety over those who had nothing to share. “I was so worried about them because they would have to get up and sometimes they would start to lie about it and I knew they were lying,” she says. “I would be identifying with them—there were inequities in the culture that bothered me at that time and continue to bother me.” But it was another time, and she wanted to be a star, so she kept quiet.