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Lily Tomlin is the daughter of Guy Tomlin, a factory worker, and Lillie Mae, a housewife, who moved to Detroit from Paducah, Kentucky during the Great Depression. Tomlin attended Wayne State University, where her interest in the theater and performing arts began. After college, Tomlin began doing stand-up comedy in nightclubs in Detroit and later, in New York City. Her first television appearance was on The Merv Griffin Show in 1965.
In 1969, Tomlin joined the sketch comedy show Laugh-In. Her characters from the show have been associated with her throughout her career, including the gum-chewing, wisecracking, snorting telephone operator Ernestine (famous for her lines "One ringy dingy, two ringy dingy" and "A gracious good morning to you ... Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?") and the bratty five-year-old Edith Ann, rocking in her oversized rocking chair and making rude noises (famous for her line "And that's the truth!").
AT&T offered Tomlin $500,000 to film a commercial using her character Ernestine, but Tomlin turned the offer down because she thought the commercial would compromise her artistic integrity. In 2003 she did film two commercials as Ernestine for the company WebEx.
Tomlin is noted for her versatility. For example, in Nashville, for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she played Linnea Reese, a strait-laced mother of two deaf children who has an affair with a country singer played by Keith Carradine. She also played secretary Violet Newstead in Nine to Five, starred in the 1981 comedy film The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and was a sickly heiress in the Steve Martin comedy All of Me.
Tomlin also voiced the Ms. Frizzle character on the animated television series The Magic School Bus from 1994 to 1998. Also, in the 1990s, due to financial reverses, Tomlin appeared on the popular sitcom Murphy Brown. In 2005 and 2006, she had a recurring role as Will Truman's boss Margot on Will & Grace. Since 2002, Tomlin has played Presidential secretary Deborah Fiderer on The West Wing. The series finished in May 2006.
Tomlin starred in the hit 1985 one-woman Broadway show The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her long-time life partner, Jane Wagner. The show won Tomlin a Tony Award. It was made into a feature film in 1991. Tomlin revived the show for a brief run in 2000. In 1989 she won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre.
Though Tomlin is now open about her lesbianism, it was, for many years, quite an open secret among many people within the gay press. Before she officially came out, she was known for her involvement in feminist and gay-friendly film productions, and would often refer to her girlfriend Wagner. On her 1975 album Modern Scream she mocked straight actors who make a point of distancing themselves from their gay characters; answering the pseudo-interview question, How did it feel to play a heterosexual? she replied, I've seen these women all my life, I know how they walk, I know how they talk ... . Her narration of the documentary The Celluloid Closet in 1995 was also largely considered a nod to the open secret of her orientation.
However, in the 1990s she refused to discuss her private life with the press, until 2000 when she came out on the New York City cable-access TV program Gay USA. As with many successful gay performers, some of her fans are still oblivious to her "private life."
Tomlin was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2003 she was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.