Lily Tomlin on breakthrough roles, friendship with Jane Fonda

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin

Lily Tomlin (L) and Jane Fonda (R) attend the premiere for "80 for Brady" at the Regency Village Theatre, Westwood, CA, January 31, 2023. Photo by Paul Smith/Shutterstock.

Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award-winning actress Lily Tomlin’s had a highly esteemed career. Her story began in the late 1960s, doing bit characters on the sketch comedy show “Laugh In.” Later, she became a star of stage, film, TV, and stand-up comedy, with performances in “Nashville,” “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” “9 to 5,” and “Grace and Frankie.” Meanwhile, she’s become an icon in the LGBTQ community and beyond. 

Fifty-plus years later, Tomlin isn’t even close to retiring. She’s starred in two movies this year, including “Moving On,” opposite real-life best friend Jane Fonda. They portray two college friends who are reunited at a funeral and enact revenge on their dead friend’s ex-husband. 

Read on for highlights from KCRW’s conversation with Tomlin about her latest project and her decades-long career. 

Revenge and friendship in “Moving On” 

This American comedy written and directed by Paul Weitz was specially penned for Tomlin and Fonda. It’s the second film she’s done with the filmmaker, following 2015’s “Grandma.” Tomlin plays a lesbian. 

“One day on the set of ‘Grace and Frankie’, I said I'm gonna call Paul and ask him to write a movie for us. He called and he said, ‘I've got an idea. It just starts out with one character saying to another, ‘I'm gonna kill you this weekend.’ … My character [is] very fairly glib and witty. Always [has] something sassy to say about everything.”

The genesis of Edith Ann 

Tomlin’s major breakthrough TV role came during the late 1960s, during her stint on the comedy sketch show “Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.” She created the character of Edith Ann, an opinionated young girl who often sat in a rocking chair. 

“I kept trying to talk them into doing Edith Ann and the writers didn't. They said she was bratty. … So I said, ‘Just get me a big cardboard box, like a refrigerator box. And she’ll stick her head out. We won't have to have any size relationship.’ So they humored me and they let me do that for a couple of weeks. And she caught on unbelievably. And I went out in the hallway and our show carpenter was building her rocking chair. I knew she had found a home on the show.”

Debuting on the big screen on “Nashville”

In her first dramatic role, Tomlin played a gospel singer named Linnea in the 1975 movie “Nashville.” Actress Louise Fletcher, of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” fame,​​ was initially slated to play the character. 

“Bob just called me up one day. We had the same agent. He said, ‘I want you to come down to Nashville and do a part in ‘Nashville,’ and he gave me Louise's part. I had no idea that that was the case until the night of the Oscars. Louise was signing to her family in sign language, and began to put two and two together. … I never saw any difference between comedy or drama and depending on the style of the vehicle. You can play it broader or or less broad.”

Tomlin and Fonda’s years-long friendship

The two actresses forged their friendship while working on “9 to 5,” the comedy about young professionals grinding away in their jobs under a sexist boss. Now, decades later, the dynamic duo have reunited on multiple projects, including the Netflix hit series “Grace and Frankie.” 

Tomlin says production on the show was even delayed when Fonda pivoted into climate change activism, including her work with Fire Drill Fridays. 

“When she said I called Ted Sarandos and asked him if we could delay ‘Grace and Frankie’ for a year, I didn't laugh, but I said well, good luck with that. If anybody could talk Ted Sarandos into it, it was probably Jane. … She's been so inspired by Greta Thunberg. She just had to do something.

She got everybody involved. Everybody went to D.C. and protested and got arrested. And that's inevitable with Jane. Here's the most beautiful thing Jane said … ‘Everybody's being used by someone. What better thing than to be used by good people for good things? You have to love her for it.” 

On older female representation in Hollywood

Tomlin admits that the environment for older actresses has improved in recent years.

“They used to write parts for women that would be considered aged now, 40, 50 years ago. An older woman would be 55, 60, at least. And they used to put a wig hat on your head and an exercise suit. … You’d just be the butt of the jokes.”