Comedienne Lily Tomlin, 37, has conjured up a variety of memorable roles—from Ernestine, the snorting telephone operator, to Lucille W., who gets high on rubber. But the character that plays best in Paducah, Ky., where her family lives, is that of Edith Ann, the smart-alecky 5½-year-old. “She’s just like Lily as a child,” relatives say.
To Paducah’s regret, Lily was not born in the small (pop. 32,000) Kentucky river town. Still, if home is where the family is, then Paducah can claim her as its own. Her parents, Guy and Lillie Mae Tomlin, lived there before moving to Detroit (where Lily was born) in search of work in 1935. The Tomlins regularly went back to their old Kentucky homestead to visit relatives. When Guy Tomlin died six years ago, Lily’s mother came home to stay.
And so when Lily recently put on a special performance in a Paducah high school auditorium, proud local citizens packed the house. “I’ll bet half of them are relatives,” said Mother Tomlin. (Actually, more than 40 were.)
The home folks knew Lily as Mary Jean (she later took her mother’s name because “it’s just so old-fashioned,” but spells it differently). Cousin Glenda Scoggins remembers spanking Mary Jean “on her butt” when she whined for ice cream. Aunt Marie Tomlin recalls a stagestruck tot who helped herself to mother’s best blanket so that her “theater” in the garage could have a curtain. “She wasn’t as old as nothing then,” says Aunt Marie.
Lily put in time as a premed student at Detroit’s Wayne State University but she never lost her childhood zest for showing off in front of an audience. That led to club dates in New York, a spectacular stretch on Laugh-In, more TV specials and an Oscar nomination for her role in the film Nashville.
At present Tomlin is completing another movie (The Late Show, with Art Carney). She still performs in clubs and on campuses, and the pace may be telling. Two weeks ago she stalked off in the middle of her act at Louisiana’s Nicholls State University because she felt the audience was unresponsive. “I may regret this later,” she said, “but I cannot go on with the show.”
She has time only for short visits once or twice a year to her mother’s red cedar ranch house. Each visit sends Mother Tomlin, 63, into a tizzy of cooking. This time there was a turkey, dressing, candied sweet potatoes, peanut butter cookies, apple spice cake and dried apricot pie. And meat loaf, of course—”Lily always has to have a meat loaf,” says Lillie Mae.
For Paducah, Lily announced she was cleaning up her act. But the effort fell short of maternal standards. When Lily made a risqué comment on Henry Kissinger’s claim that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” Mother gasped and bit her thumb. When Lily crouched to show “what men in New York subways do” when they see a pretty girl in a dress, Mrs. Tomlin covered her face.
“I can leave town, but my mother can’t,” Lily quipped. Sighed Lillie Mae, in uneasy jest, “Mother is leaving too.”