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Adam Graham

What has 83 years taught Lily Tomlin? 'Not much'

DETROIT — Lily Tomlin's not one for football.

"I'm not terribly involved in sports," says the legendary actress and comedian, who was born and raised in Detroit, of her interest in Sunday gridiron showdowns. "The other girls will say, 'Oh yeah, I'm a big sports fan! And how about that when so-and-so did such-and-such?' and all that. Like someone was saying when (Tom) Brady lost the last Bucs game, 'The defense was not helping him.' Well, I might not make that conclusion."

Tomlin "took a look" at that game but didn't find herself mentally or emotionally engaged in the on-field action. "Whatever it is that makes me interested in stuff, I just don't relate to it in the way the person that is inclined that way relates to it," says the Emmy, Grammy and Tony winner and Oscar nominee. "I see a football game on television, I don't think, 'Oh my god, who's playing? Who's playing? Oh there's No. 14, oh my god, there's No. 3!' I don't know that. I haven't tried to learn."

Even though Tomlin hasn't been glued to her television during the NFL playoffs, football is relevant to the discussion because she's one of the stars of "80 for Brady," a warmhearted comedy about four senior friends who travel to the Super Bowl to root on their hero, Tom Brady. The film, co-starring Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, Sally Field and yes, Tom Brady, hits theaters this week.

It's Tomlin's most high-profile big-screen role in two decades and the latest part in a career that stretches back to the late 1960s. Tomlin broke out on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in 1969 and has been a steady presence in arts and culture ever since; she's a 30-time Emmy nominee (and seven-time winner), a winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and a 2014 Kennedy Center Honors recipient.

Ask Tomlin what she's learned during the years and she answers with typical irreverence and humor.

"Not much," says the 83-year-old.

"I'm so amazed when all my friends give interviews and they have, like, life philosophies. They all figured out so much! They have wise, eloquent things to say about the passage of time. And me? I have nothing to say."

Learning to hustle

Tomlin was born in Detroit in September 1939. Her parents moved to the Motor City from western Kentucky and settled on the city's west side, where Tomlin attended Crosman Elementary and Hutchins Intermediate Schools before landing at Cass Tech for high school.

Tomlin fondly recalls her working-class Detroit upbringing — she describes the Detroit of her youth as "gritty, fabulous and political" — and learning the importance of hard work at an early age.

She remembers the time she was home sick from school and she spotted an ad for novelty items — flies inside plastic ice cubes, "stupid gag stuff" — in the back of a Red Ryder comic book, and payment wasn't required until delivery.

Tomlin, who was 10 at the time, figured she had subverted the system and was clever enough to obtain the items for free. But it turns out her mother had to pay for them, and she told Tomlin she'd hand them over — once she could pay her back.

"That was the turning point," says Tomlin, on the phone last week from Los Angeles, where she was in her car on the way to an appointment. "I said, 'Well how's a kid supposed to get any money?' And she said, 'You could do chores for the neighbors.' And so I instituted a dime business: I'd go to the store for a dime; I'd walk your dog for a dime; I'd empty your garbage for a dime."

Could she have leveled up and gotten a quarter? "I don't think so, a quarter was very dear," she says. "I had to price within the market, and I was new in the marketplace. I had to build my business."

The dimes from those odd jobs eventually added up and she was able to pay back her mother, and the novelty items allowed her to play pranks on her friends and cousins, which built her comedy chops and timing. Tomlin later worked with a few friends at the Avalon Theatre on Linwood, where they ran the concession counter and would act like "scoundrels," she says.

"Back in those days, candy didn't come wrapped in cellophane, it was just in a box, and we would open up the boxes and take one or two candies out of each and build ourselves a huge stash to eat off of," Tomlin says. "And then our friends would come in and get popcorn, and popcorn was inventoried by count, and so we'd give them popcorn with a lot of butter on it, and then we'd just wash the container and resell it. Total larcenists. But it wasn't like we were making any money, we were just wasting their money and feeding our faces."

Tomlin recalls playing pranks on customers with a grease gun and learning to smoke Luckies at the Avalon — the habit didn't last long — but she wasn't on the career usher path like some of her co-workers. She wanted to be on the screen, not working the candy counter, and while at Wayne State (she was studying pre-med at the time) she appeared in a student show, playing a character she came up with named Mrs. Earbore, a Grosse Pointe matron.

"And that catapulted me into local fame," Tomlin says, "and I was determined to go to New York and make a real hit out of it."

She did, and she never looked back. New York led to California and that led to "Laugh-In," and soon Tomlin was everywhere.

Workin' 9 to 5

Tomlin joined "Laugh-In" during the show's second season and stayed on for five seasons, earning her first Emmy nomination for the series in 1971. She later collected her first Emmy for 1973's "Lily," her CBS variety special; she won again for 1975's "The Lily Tomlin Special."

Through the '70s she performed on Broadway, released comedy albums and starred in a series of movies, including Robert Altman's "Nashville," which earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress (Lee Grant won that year, for "Shampoo") and kicking off a longstanding professional relationship with Altman.

She starred in several big comedy hits in the 1980s, including 1984's "All of Me" (opposite Steve Martin) and 1988's "Big Business" (opposite Bette Midler), and she returned to TV in the '90s and '00s, playing Miss Frizzle in "The Magic School Bus" and executive secretary to Martin Sheen's President Bartlet on "The West Wing."

Tomlin provided the voice for Aunt May in the 2018 animated hit "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," and prior to that, in 2013, she married her longtime creative partner, Jane Wagner. The couple will celebrate 10 years of marriage on Dec. 31.

Through the years, Tomlin's most fruitful on-screen partnership has been with Fonda, whom she met while making 1980's "9 to 5." Fonda had been trying to get the movie off the ground for a while and had envisioned a more serious-leaning project, but after seeing Tomlin in a comedy show at the time, she decided to bring in Tomlin and make it a more humorous affair.

It worked. "9 to 5" — which also starred Dolly Parton and Dabney Coleman — was a monster success, grossing more than $100 million in theaters and becoming the year's second biggest hit, behind "The Empire Strikes Back." It went on to be a programming staple in the early days of cable television.

Fonda and Tomlin reunited in the Netflix series "Grace and Frankie," which ran for seven seasons on the streamer, from 2015 to 2022. The pair also teamed up for "Moving On," a comedy due in theaters in March.

"I have great affection for Jane, because Jane has had such an incredible life," says Tomlin, who says she was a huge fan of the actress and activist dating back to 1971's "Klute." She notes she even wore her hair like Fonda's in "Klute" after its release.

"Her mantra from an early age was, 'I can make it better.' She has clung to that, and she has really tried to make things better for a whole lot of people."

On top at 80

Fonda and Tomlin were the first two parties on board for "80 for Brady," which is loosely based on the real-life story of a foursome of Brady superfans and their unwavering support of the quarterback.

The pair was brainstorming on co-stars and came up with Field and Moreno, "and it's so funny because they're the two players who aren't 80: (Moreno) is 90 and (Field) is in her 70s," Tomlin says. (Tomlin and Fonda, who is 85, fit the title's billing.)

They pitched the pair to producers and Field and Moreno came on board. "They could have forced anybody on us," Tomlin says, "and they might have eliminated us in the process."

In the film, Tomlin plays Lou, a superstitious Brady fan battling back after a cancer bout who at one point pep talks her hero, No. 12, to a come-from-behind Super Bowl victory. Tomlin says the seven-time Super Bowl champion (and former University of Michigan quarterback) was very comfortable in front of the camera.

"As an actor, he was completely natural, very effective. He's a performer," Tomlin says. "As an athlete, he's a performer, and as an actor, he's a performer, and those worlds meet very nicely in a movie about football."

"Diners, Dine-Ins and Drives" star Guy Fieri also appears in the film ("great fun, very off-the-cuff, kind of wild," Tomlin says of the Flavortown Mayor), and the movie features a theme song by the all-star team of Dolly Parton, Belinda Carlisle, Cyndi Lauper, Gloria Estefan and Debbie Harry.

"80 for Brady" is being released the weekend before the Super Bowl, but Tomlin isn't expecting to be in the stands at the Big Game, "unless Paramount says now we're going to take you all to the Super Bowl and make a sequel," she says. If that happens, you might see Tomlin in the stands enjoying a hot dog, she says.

Looking ahead, her work slate is clean, "and maybe I'll keep it that way," Tomlin says.

Her goal for 2023? "I'd like to lie in a hammock by a stream," she says, and any old stream will do. "I figure there's one somewhere in the world. I would just lie there, kind of comatose."

Circling back to the topic of life lessons and advice, it turns out Tomlin does have a little wisdom to impart after her 50-plus years in show business and her life on stage and screen. She just had to think about it a little.

"Save your money. If you make a dollar, save a dime," Tomlin says. "And always wear sunscreen."



Rated: PG-13 (for brief strong language, some drug content and some suggestive references)

Running time: 1:38

How to watch: In theaters Friday


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