A career for the history books! Lily Tomlin made her first TV appearance in 1965 — and she’s been on top of the comedy world for more than 50 years.
Born in Detroit in 1939, Tomlin’s first sparked an interest in performing while she was an undergraduate at Wayne State University. She was originally a biology major, but after auditioning for a play, she decided to start studying theater instead. After college, she began doing stand-up comedy in Detroit before moving to New York City.
Tomlin landed her first TV role in a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show, but her big break came four years later when she joined the sketch comedy series Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. The I Heart Huckabees actress played numerous memorable characters throughout her four-year stint on the show, including Ernestine, a telephone operator known for her catchphrase, “One ringy dingy.”
The character was so popular at one point that AT&T offered her $500,000 to play Ernestine in a commercial, but Tomlin turned it down. “I was extremely hurt and insulted,” she told The Ledger of the offer in January 2010. “I was really idealistic. I fancied myself a satirist and they thought they could buy Ernestine.” (She ultimately revived the character for a series of WebEx ads in 2003.)
Two years after leaving Laugh-In, Tomlin made her big-screen debut in Robert Altman’s Nashville, an ensemble dramedy that also starred Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, Ronee Blakley and Geraldine Chaplin. The role scored Tomlin an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, though she lost to Lee Grant for her performance in Shampoo.
While the 9 to 5 star was making a name for herself in Hollywood, she felt compelled to hide her personal life from the public. Tomlin began dating now-wife Jane Wagner in 1971, but the duo — who’ve also collaborated many times — didn’t formally come out as a couple for years.
“I wasn’t totally forthcoming,” the Grace and Frankie alum said during an April 2015 interview with HuffPost Live. “Everybody in the business knew I was gay, and certainly everybody I worked with and everything like that. I just never had a press conference to announce it.”
In 1975, one magazine offered her the cover if she agreed to come out in the accompanying article, but she declined. “I never did not come out,” she explained to The Washington Post in December 2014. “I wanted to be acknowledged for my work. I didn’t want to be that gay person who does comedy.”
The twosome tied the knot in December 2013 after 42 years together. “She expresses how I feel, which I have no ability to do,” Tomlin told Variety of Wagner in July 2020. “She can express in words what I feel about the world, about humans, about the struggle that we’re in — and, presumably, not the inevitability of it all, something that I know speaks to other people.”
Keep scrolling for a look back at Tomlin’s life and career: