The Legendary Lily Tomlin on ‘Grace and Frankie’ and Almost Getting Banned from the Emmys
The 23-time (!) Emmy nominee opens up about her hit Netflix series, roles for women of a certain age, and the hilarious prank that almost got her booted from the Emmys.
Living comedy legend Lily Tomlin has a frog in her throat. Or at least, someone on the other end of the line does. Whoever it is clears her throat, warbles unintelligibly, collapses into laughter twice (probably at the alarm in my “hello?”) before finally chortling out the words, “Hi, I’m Lily.”
It’s a delightfully loopy start to a conversation in which the 23-time Emmy nominee—up this year for only her second-ever Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy nomination, for her co-starring role as free spirit Frankie in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie—reflects on her 50 years in the industry, the scarcity of three-dimensional roles for older women, her only Emmys regret, and the joy of having Jane Fonda for a scene partner.
Oh, and that time Ernestine nearly got herself banned from the Emmys.
You remember Ernestine, Tomlin’s brash, hilarious, narcissistic phone operator, a character she first created in 1969 on the NBC sketch comedy show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. An in-character sketch on the 1983 miniseries Live... and in Person earned Tomlin an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Special. And Ernestine, well, she was made for the limelight.
Giggling at the memory, Tomlin says she’d love to tell me about Ernestine’s red carpet debut—bedecked in the bugle-bead dress she teases in the Joan Rivers interview above, complete with a candlestick phone sewn into it—but it’s just such a long story she’ll have to save it for “another time.”
Unabated, one beat later, she launches anyway into the saga of how Ernestine stole Joan Collins’s red carpet thunder, impressed Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, and earned the ire of the then-Television Academy president who, unamused by Ernestine’s antics, threatened to make her first Emmys her “last.”
Here’s our conversation.
This is your 23rd Emmy nomination overall. Does that sound surreal to you?
You know what, I’m surprised it’s 23. But it’s really been like 50 years, so I’ve been on the scene. I feel kind of like the television Meryl Streep. (Laughs) She’s got like 20 nominations, but hers are all Oscars.
The Emmys themselves have also evolved so much over the years. What has it been like watching that happen?
It’s pretty astounding, especially when you have to vote. There are so many categories now, it’s unbelievable. And stuff you never thought of. I mean, when I started out there were three networks. Fox hadn’t even come along. That’s why shows like Laugh-In or What’s My Line? or those old shows, half the country would be watching them on any single night. And now everything is niche. But it’s sort of great for all of the shows that provide work for actors.
And it gives us shows like Grace and Frankie, too.
I know, exactly.
Grace and Frankie is so beloved, including among younger women. My mom watches it, for instance, but I know a lot of people under 30 who do too.
Yeah, no, I know! A lot of kids—well, what I consider kids—say they love the show. I went to an Academy event last Monday and it was all actors. And so many young people, in their 20s and their 30s, they told me how much they love the show. You never really know. You like a show or you think it’s good, but you can’t really be sure. They’re just really enthused. They go, “Oh, I love your show!” or they’ll say, “My mother and I both watch the show.”
The women of Grace & Frankie are relatable and funny and they have fully realized lives, which you don't see often enough with older protagonists these days.
No. There was a time, when I first started cresting over 50 or something, when I would get offers for a supporting kind of role. And it was always some kind of dotty person in a tracksuit. And she was always just dotty, that’s all. (Laughs) Her age and everything was always what she was defined by and how funny she was in her dottiness. Needless to say, I didn’t take those parts.
What has it meant to you to help tell this story about older women and friendship and love and hilarity and all of that?
It’s meant a great deal. Jane and I, we love having this job and being able to tell these stories and be a part of them. And of course we love Martin [Sheen] and Sam [Waterson]. We just sort of got blessed somehow. I tell you, it seems accidental. There’s plenty of talent in the writing staff, but you just never know if it’s gonna come together, if everyone is gonna strike the right chord. And we have fun! We all have fun.
You can certainly tell onscreen that you’ve got a great rapport going with Jane.
Yeah, no, that’s the start of it—we have a lot of fun. But we have fun with the guys, too. Of course the guys have a lot of their own scenes, but they’re just sweet and funny and tender and outrageous. It’s good. (Shouts suddenly) And we like our kids! (Laughs) The kids really have developed. We just wrapped our third season on Friday night. That was great ’cause we have a real esprit de corps. The company is just first-rate. We have a great DP, Gale Tattersall, who is just so wonderful and he makes everybody look so good. We just like it, we really do like it. When we started out, Jane said, “Oh this is so much fun, I hope we go for five or 10 years.” And I started thinking about television and thinking about how if other shows have done it, maybe we will.
You submitted “The Test” for consideration for Best Actress in a Comedy. Why did you choose this episode?
You know, I don’t feel like the show is that flat-out a comedy, like some shows might be. And I guess it is, because people say it’s so funny. But to me it seems kind of just human, which I like best of all anyway. But, they had wanted to submit that episode so I went ahead and let them. I figured, well maybe they know something that I don’t.
(Laughs) They might. But you, as Frankie, do act through a pretty wide range of emotions in that episode—she’s wonderfully funny as always, but there’s also her frustration at not being able to pass the driver’s test, her anger at her sons for questioning whether she’s still fit to drive, and her sarcasm at Grace’s country club friends.
Does that one have Puss Face in it?
Her friend, [played by] Swoosie Kurtz, Puss Face?
Oh! The snooty queen bee of Grace’s friends. Yes, she’s in it.
“I saw her at lunch, that Puss Face.” (Laughs) Swoosie was kind of a high-class Ernestine in a way, with her face all puckered up.
She was, I see that now. What do you like most about Frankie?
Well, I love the way she dresses. Our costume designer got nominated this year! People who hand-craft jewelry send us stuff from all over the country, big crystal pieces and all that. Frankie also has a pair of shoes—I told them Shirley MacLaine wears them regularly—they’re called Z-Coils. There’s a big spring between the heel and the shoe, so that you’re kind of walking with a spring in your heels. It’s sort of fun! But don’t go over too rough a terrain. And I love her hair.
I love Frankie’s hair, too. I was so offended when Grace’s friends made fun of it.
All that hair! Of course Grace sees it very differently, ’cause earlier in the episode she goes after Frankie: “I’m just so tired of you and all that hair” and I said, “I can’t help it if I have memorable hair!”
You also get to act high a lot as Frankie, with the ayahuasca in Season 1 and all the marijuana. Is there a secret to doing that convincingly?
No! I’d like to say I really do get high, but I don’t. (Laughs) But I’m glad it’s convincing, I’ll become more confident.
The show is a comedy but it deals with weightier themes, too—loss and heartbreak and sex and aging. It seems comedies these days are doing a lot of the dramatic heavy-lifting.
It is, of course. Jane and I both want it to be about something all the time. We want it to be funny and we want it to be about something—which is kind of what all actors want. I’m so grateful that it allows us to be emotional and caring and deep about something that happens to us. And we don’t have to, like, spin it off, we don’t have to have a little fake moment of emotion and then be funny after it.
I hope that because of this show you’ve stopped being offered the dotty-person-in-a-tracksuit roles.
(Laughs.) I don’t think they’re writing them too much. They’re kind of pulling back from them, I hope. I think the scene may have changed a little bit. I’m sure there are exceptions, but essentially a lot of people have begun to drop them because they just don’t work so well anymore. Audiences are too hip.
And lastly, do you have any favorite memories of going to the Emmys?
I could tell you a story about going to the Emmys, but I don’t know if I should. It’s too long. I went one year as Ernestine. I did a takeoff on Flashdance as Ernestine for a show and I got nominated. (Laughs) And so I had a big dress made out of bugle beads, it was a ’40s evening dress and it had a candlestick phone worked into it—we should save this for another time, it’s a long story—so I arrived at the Emmys with two Russian wolfhounds in a separate car and I had two guys in livery so that when Ernestine came out on the red carpet, she’d present herself and they’d put the dog’s leads in my hands.
I had my own film crew running ahead of me, filming me. (Laughs) And the only thing I regret is that I was gonna have Vito the repairman—this goes way back into Ernestine’s history, she had a boyfriend named Vito; this was in ’84—but I was gonna have Vito with a trumpet start playing “Reach Out and Touch Someone,” which used to be the theme of AT&T. And I said, “Well, that’s a little too much.” But I’d give anything if I could go back and change time and have him do that.
Anyway, so I presented myself and the kids across the street were in the bleachers—this is when they had the Emmys in Pasadena—and they sent up a big roar because Joan Collins was going up the stairs to the auditorium and she thought it was for her. And she turned around and looked down and saw Ernestine and she just doubled over laughing, it was so great. And then I’ll have to tell you another time about sitting behind Diana Muldaur, who was like the president of the Academy... (Breaks off into laughter)
...I want to hear this story!
(Still laughing) No, no, because you can’t put it in the story and give it short shrift! It’s got to be told full out. So I sat there for five hours with my face screwed up like that. And [former Cosmopolitan editor] Helen Gurley Brown was there down in the lineup and she’s looking at me like she’s thinking, “Lily Tomlin is really eager for publicity” or something. And I sat behind Diana Muldaur—they had put me in the second row behind her ’cause they thought I was gonna do some mischief—and said (airy Ernestine voice), “Oh Mrs. Muldaur, I’m so excited, this is my first Emmys!” And she turned around and said, “It may be your last.” She was real cutting. (Laughs)
And I had a big black muff with my white dress with the black candlestick phone. And when I didn’t win—Cloris Leachman won—Ernestine sat there very stoically. And I didn’t know if the camera was on me or not. The producers and the directors loved the whole thing, that I was done up like that, so they did take the camera and kept it on me but I didn’t know it until the end. And then Ernestine, her face started to crumble. (Laughs.) I whipped out a big black hankie and I sobbed into it. And people, really cool people I worked with from CBS, they wrote me a note later saying, “Ernestine, you were a vision of dignity and pathos.”
That is amazing. Did it make it onto TV?
It did. In fact I stole the footage and blurred out different things and put it in one of my video packs.
I’ll have to track it down on YouTube.
Oh, I’ll send it to you. It’s in one of my specials. You’ll get a kick out of it. It was a long time ago, jeez, I haven’t told that story in so long. Yeah look, it’s 20-something years ago already. Mark my words, the time goes fast. And those are the only things that matter. The things that you really had fun with.