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Thursday, December 13 Living

An interview with comedic icon Lily Tomlin as she heads to Hartford fundraiser

Lily Tomlin is everyone’s favorite comedienne, bringing fans a host of iconic characters including Ernestine, Edith Ann and Mrs. Judith Beasley. An accomplished actress, writer and producer who first gained fame on the NBC comedy Show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” the married 79-year-old has racked up a long list of awards and nominations for her performances in movies including “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe” and “Nashville.” She is bringing the laughs to Hartford’s Bushnell theater on Oct. 19 for the 21st annual fundraiser, “Nite of Lite Laughter.” Tomlin, who now stars in the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” chatted a bit about a host of things, including her comedic style, politics, the new “9 to 5” movie reboot and her show in Hartford.

Q. Your comedy has sustained over decades, even in a time when we are brasher, more irreverent, meaner and less discriminating at what subjects become the brunt of the joke. You don’t seem to subscribe to that and yet here you are, a mega-star who seems to stay securely on top of the entertainment industry pile. How do you approach you job and what is the secret of your success?

A. I have no idea whatsoever. I think it is because I have done characters all my life. If I am not so attractive to a fan one of the characters is. I remind them of someone in their family or maybe they sense that I come to them with a very compassionate view. I have a hard time shaking that. Someone asked me a similar question when I was doing some politicking once, they said something like ‘how so you keep up with the times’ and all that stuff. We were talking about judging people or bridging the gap between people. I still have a hard time judging someone unless they are so horrible, so abusive, making bad choices and voting against everything that is decent and just take our lives and drag it all into the abyss, then they are sort of fair game. But a person trying to get it done and making good choices and not ripping children from their parents’ arms, you cut them slack. I grew up in a working class family with all kinds of people. You don’t have to be vindictive to be funny.

Q. You are coming to Hartford for a very good cause, Hartford Hospital Healthcare Cancer Institute and its breast cancer initiatives. Have you ever spent any time in our fair state and what are you looking forward to and what can we look forward to?

A. I thought I wanted to move to Connecticut once. You know, split my time between New York City and there, be like Bette Davis or Celeste Holm. Driving around in a woody station wagon with a bushel of apples in the trunk. But I have played Connecticut many times. I did a lot of dates at the Bushnell, especially in the 1970s. I’ll be bringing a lot of my characters like Edith and Ernestine to the stage and will be using a lot of video to show the history of the characters. I’ll be doing some monologues that are sort of classic and making some fun of myself.

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Q. I am so excited about the “9 to 5” movie reboot! Can’t help but half-smile because as empowered as we thought we were as women when the initial movie was made, well, it seems we have not come that far given there are still issues that make the remake timely. Your thoughts?

A. We haven’t come so far at all. We are still making pennies on the dollar compared to men, most companies don’t have child care at their facilities. That inequity is getting more attention because of the MeToo movement but of course there is still a lot to address. As far as the new movie, I am very excited. It is still just in the writing stage. Violet (Tomlin’s character in the original “9 to 5”) will have gone out on her own. Maybe run for politics.

Q. Are you and Violet at all alike?

A. I do think Violet and I as a human beings are similar. I think she would be outspoken and deliberate in her behavior and want to stick to things. That’s the way I am. I think in the new movie she will be much more conscious and work for women’s issues.

Q. Your successes are too long to list, but the current Netflix show “Grace and Frankie” is one of my favorites. What hits home with you about that show? What’s the message?

A. I think it is to show people that you can always start over and that your women friends are very important. Most people say that the show gives them hope.

Q. When was the moment you knew you knew being an actor just had to be?

A. When I was a kid we lived in an old apartment house in a tough neighborhood in Detroit. I started taking ballet and tap at park and rec department. When I went to college at Wayne State University I was pre-med, well really pre pre-med. I got into a college show where they were doing ridiculous sophomoric material. That was where I did my first character, a take-off of a Gross Pointe matron. I just adlibbed it and it was a sensation. I decided ‘well I am going to New York City and get a job as an actress. I worked like I was on fire. I did what I really wanted to do.

Q. What is your decadent indulgence?

A. My mother’s lemon icebox pie with heavy whipping cream. I am sure that is why I have arterial problems.

Q. If you were having a dinner party and could invite five people, dead or live, who would they be?

A. All the old comediennes. Gracie Allen, Lucy, Joan Blondell, Jean Harlow, Hedy Lamarr. There are so many I would like to invite.

Q. What is something most people don’t know about you?

A. I don’t know how to swim very well. And I don’t exercise but was very flexible and didn’t really have much stiffness until later in life. When we were making “9 to 5,” Jane Fonda was tireless and would want us to exercise with her every day. I would arrive and drag my mat away from the mirror and get behind her so she couldn’t see me and just make sounds like I was exercising, you know thumping the ground or whatever. She did however, make me very aware of my posture.

Ticket prices for the 8 p.m. show range from $39.50 to $79.50. Visit bushnell.org

MaryEllen Fillo is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.

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