Broadway is still recovering from the aftershock of recognition from Lily's solo triumph Appearing Nitely. With a lesser talent, the show could have been called "Fifteen Characters in Search of Audience." For Tomlin, it won a Tony and grossed nearly $2 million on a five-city SRO tour. Simultaneously, Tomlin turned up as Art Carney's dizzy foil in The Late Show, giving a bravura performance in her first film lead. Now Lily's fourth comedy album promises to be her best-seller.
"Sometimes," says Tomlin, 37, "I feel like a figment of my own imagination." But who's to say that Laugh-In's Ernestine, the scourge of the switchboard (snort, snort), isn't more real than Ma Bell (who wanted to buy the character for $500,000—Tomlin refused)? After Tomlin daringly created an indomitable quadraplegic named Crystal with a passion for hang-gliding, she was invited to perform before an upcoming convention of the handicapped. "People in chairs," as Lily empathetically calls them, "have an incredible sense of humor—really human and moving."
The description just as easily fits Tomlin herself, who hides an acute sensitivity behind that gummy smile. Her Late Show director Robert Benton calls her categorically "the greatest living American actress. She transcends comedy." Robert Altman, who cast Tomlin against type in Nashville, thinks she's "a genius." Pryor raves that Lily is "a goddamn national treasure. I'd drop anything, anywhere, to work with her." An appreciative Radner adds, "She's paving the way for other women like me who want to do comedy."
In what she admits is her "breakthrough" year, Tomlin has successfully resisted a drastic change in her style of life. ("Reality," goes one favorite line, "is just a crutch for people who can't deal with drugs.") Home continues to be a modest, if shockingly blue, bungalow off Sunset Boulevard that Lily shares with her writer-collaborator Jane Wagner. "Lily's idea of a night on the town," says her lookalike brother Richard, 34, "is to go to Hamburger Hamlet for dinner and then go home and work." Tomlin never flies first-class "because it would be an insult to my family and the life we've known." (She grew up Mary Jean Tomlin, the daughter of a hard-drinking Detroit factory worker.)
She still "shapes" her odd but lovingly rendered characters at the Ice House, a night spot in Pasadena. There she created Crystal and her only male persona, Rick, the macho but vulnerable singles-bar stud. "I am fearless," she says of risking raw material before a live audience.
These days, converted from cult figure to seven-digit commodity, Tomlin half-kiddingly frets onstage about "becoming a success in a mediocre world." Names like Spielberg, Beatty and Nicholson want to work with her. CBS has signed her for two more specials. Tomlin talks of playing Olive Oyl to Dustin Hoffman's Popeye in a movie musical. The feminist in her wants to try a role-reversed remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man. In March she begins a film romance with her friend John Travolta. ("He's wonderful. I just connect with him.") Before that, though, she's bringing her one-woman show home to the West Coast. It is a frantic schedule, yet Lily seems in no danger of losing her perspective. "The trouble with the rat race," she likes to say, "is that even if you win you're still a rat."
It's lucky that Hollywood is busy colonizing outer space, because here on earth there's a one-woman population explosion named Lily Tomlin. In a year in which the competitive likes of Steve Martin, Richard Pryor and Gilda Radner all experimented with variously altered egos, Lily has gone Darwin one better: The funniest not only survive, but prosper.