Actress and comedienne Lily Tomlin performs her one-woman show An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin on Saturday, November 1, 8 PM, at Rosemont Theatre (see Critic’s Choice). Here are a few personal sidelights from a phone conversation I had with her recently:
Tomlin grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit, but her parents are from Paducah, Kentucky, and each summer she and her brother would take a Brooks bus down to Kentucky to visit family. “They had those old family bus lines so all those people that had migrated to those northern cities had a way to get back to their families.
“Paducah would flood,” she recalled. “They’ve got flood walls now, but they’d have people nailing their best suits to the roof of their house because the floods would be so bad.”
I sometimes visit a family member in Tennessee, near Dolly Parton’s Dollywood, and mentioned how beautiful it is in that area around the Smoky Mountains. “It is, god, really beautiful,” she said. “My partner Jane [Wagner] is from Morristown, Tennessee. In fact, Dolly used to go from Sevierville [Tennessee], where she lived, to Morristown. She’d say [laughing, with a southern accent], ‘Well, we go to Morristown to get our teeth fixed.'”
Tomlin went to Wayne State University to study medicine before dropping out and moving to New York City in 1965 to pursue acting and comedy. I asked her why she decided against a career in medicine. “Well, I was never going to be a doctor,” she answered. “I wasn’t a good enough student. . . . We had very accelerated curricula at my high school. Kids who were real scientists went on to MIT and won scholarships everywhere. And we had an engineering department and a very fine art and music department. And I was in prenursing—they had a prenursing curriculum too. And I was good at certain biological sciences. But if it gets too abstract, I get lost. I liked the idea of being a doctor. And of course I wanted to have some kind of career and be independent, and I wanted to do good at the same time, as most of us did at that time. You didn’t want to do well except by doing good. So naturally I thought I could be a doctor. But thank god for the people in hospitals that I never became one.”