Lily Tomlin on Private Life and Public Authenticity

Jan 26, 2016

Actress and Comedian Lily Tomlin has won a few awards in her lifetime – including two Tonys, a Grammy, six Emmys, and two Peabodys (the latter of which she is unabashedly proud).  And this is hardly a comprehensive list. 

Recently, she played the title role of a gay character in the independent film Grandma, to great critical acclaim.  She’s also starring with Jane Fonda in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie -- about two women who find out later in life that their husbands are gay.  But this kind of artistic exploration hasn’t always been possible for Tomlin.  While she never lied about her private life, she says she did spend years side-stepping questions about it.

RLH:  It was the mid-1970s when Time magazine offered you the cover if you would agree to come out – for them. 

LT:  That’s right. 

RLH:  You thought about it and ultimately declined.  What do you think would have happened back then if you’d agreed to it?

LT:  Well, I don’t know and I’ll always wonder about that.  That was in ’75 and I think, Ellen [DeGeneres] didn’t come out until ’95.   And she paid a price for it, although she certainly has surmounted everything and ended up triumphant in her career. 

So, it would have been a positive in terms of the movement, but for how long, I don’t know or how soon it would have come on the heels of that.  In some ways I wanted to do it so badly.  But I was also a bit offended that it wasn’t for my work as an actress or a comedienne.  They just needed a gay person. And who they wound up using was a service member from one of the armed services.  [Leonard] Matlovich was his name, and it was really just a story about how many gay people there are in the world. I was just ego enough that I wanted to be acknowledged for what I did.

In ’77 I got the cover any way with my first Broadway show.  And back in those days, it was a big coup if your publicist could pull off Time and Newsweek.  You had to keep it a secret – one from the other.  And she almost did it.  She was, like, the preeminent publicist who could get this done.  She’d done it two or three times in the past. 

Anyway, it didn’t work out because Newsweek found out and they put someone else on the cover.  But inside, there [were] two big stories – in Time and Newsweek.  One of them said that I shared a house in the Hollywood Hills with Writer Jane Wagner.  And Jane was very often there, and I was never secretive, but people just didn’t write about your sex life unless they really were kind of out to skewer you.  And the other one said I lived alone in the Hollywood Hills, or something like that. 

So I’m saying even those people at that time held back on writing about the fact that, well, Jane was always there.  If we talked at my house – or -- we were on the road for Appearing Nightly at that time.  Jane was always there, and I’ve always referenced Jane, but I never made a big case out of it.

RLH:  Yeah, it’s sort of amazing – your honesty -- because Terry Gross from Fresh Air asked you, ‘If I had asked you, Lily Tomlin, in 1989 whether you were gay,’ she said, ‘what would you have said back then?’  Terry Gross chose not to ask the question at the time.  And there was a long pause, and then you said, ‘Well, I guess would have told you the truth.’

And you are this sort of amazingly direct, honest person and yet you’ve navigated this world.  As a comedienne, early on, there were certain things that you couldn’t do.  You couldn’t curse, and people would – men would pat you on the head… How do you navigate all that?

LT:  Well, I don’t know.  I don’t think I deserve all that.  I mean it seems – it seems attractive when you’re saying it, but it’s hard for me to receive it because it doesn’t feel absolutely the truth. 

You know, when I look back I think, well, I could have done much more.  And I should have.  And yet, I was always looking out for myself, too.  So, that’s the truth of it.  I appreciate what you said.  And I did try.  I did try in many instances to be forthcoming and to be direct. 

And I was on The View and Barbara [Walters] said to me, ‘Lily, you’ve never married.  Have you never met the right guy?’  [laughter]

And I said, ‘Barbara, now you and I both know that’s not the reason.’

See I was always able to be nimble in my language.  Like, in that instance, I just threw it back in Barbara’s court. 

RLH:  And what did she do?

LT:  She kind of changed the subject.  I don’t remember what she did.  She didn’t do anything.  And then a couple of weeks later I was on Hot Topics, you know:  Lily & Jane – couple for 40 years!  Or whatever it said.  I don’t know what it said. 

But I had done an interview with Us Magazine – and Us Magazine is not the pinnacle of journalism – and the fellow who was interviewing me – he was just really direct with me.  He said, ‘Well, what about your relationship with Jane Wagner?  You guys have been together for blah, blah, blah…’ and all that stuff and I said, ‘Yes, that’s true.  I certainly wouldn’t disavow that.’

But was like in 2000 or something so I didn’t really have a lot to worry about.  And maybe he knew that.  Maybe he thought, ‘Well, it’s about time that someone outs you in a kind of black-and-white way.’

RLH:  Was there any backlash for you?

LT:  No.  No, I don’t think there was.  There might have been with my mom.  My mother was an adorable person, but she’s from the south – she’s from Kentucky, and she’s fairly fundamentalist.  And she always was hoping that I wouldn’t embarrass her.  And, by God, I wound up embarrassing her.

But she was okay.  She suffered through it.  She was living in Palm Springs at that time.

RLH:  Did she know?  Did you come out to her?  Did she know you were gay long before that?

LT:  She knew it.  I never, I never came out to her.  I just lived my life.  I’ve been with Jane for almost 40 – how many – 45 years.  In March it’ll be 45 years.  So that’s a long time.  That’s a long time to have a roommate. 

RLH:  Well, Lily Tomlin, thank you so much, once again, for taking the time today to talk with me. 

LT:  Thank you, Rachel.  I really enjoyed talking to you. 

Lily Tomlin appears February 4th at Cape Fear Stage to perform An Evening of Classic Lily TomlinFor more information, follow this link:  http://cfcc.edu/capefearstage/an-evening-of-classic-lily-tomlin/