Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Woman of A Thousand Faces

Lily Tomlin brings a host of friends to Boise


Saturday, Nov. 7, 7:30 p.m., $35-$57.50

Morrison Center2201 Cesar Chavez For ticket information, visit

For more than 40 years, iconic actress Lily Tomlin has infused the roles she takes with a joie de vivre wholly unique to her. Precocious, 6-year-old Edith Ann, sitting in her oversized rocking chair. The voice of Magic School Bus teacher Ms. Valerie Fizzle. Vivian, half of a detective duo who deals with matters beyond the physical realm in I Heart Huckabees. And hundreds of live theater performances.

The 61-year-old Tomlin brings a cast of characters to the Morrison Center this weekend with her live theater show as part of the Fred Meyer Broadway in Boise series. With television, film and stage roles, Tomlin follows a work schedule that would have many 20-year-olds begging for mercy. Calling from her home in Los Angeles, she said she doesn't really see it that way.

"I'm sure it's demanding, but it's like being an athlete. You prepare for the game," Tomlin said.

It's a game in which she's been a star player since her first appearances in the early '70s on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Fast forward four decades, and Tomlin is still a regular face on television, recently playing nosy neighbor Roberta, half of a sister sleuth team living on Desperate Housewives' Wisteria Lane. She is currently developing an idea for a series starring Roberta (Tomlin) and her sister Karen McCluskey (Kathryn Joosten) in the vein of Housewives.

"Kathy [Joosten] and I would both want something that's not totally sitcom," Tomlin said. "It would be a comedy primarily ... more like Monk. We'd be some kind of investigative team."

Along with developing a series, filming for another and continued big screen roles--she plays Eleanor in the upcoming Sweet Baby Jesus, currently in pre-production--Tomlin has more than 30 live shows scheduled between October of this year and March 2010. She is always drawn back to the stage.

"I started putting on shows on my back porch when I was 8 or 9 years old" Tomlin said. "So that's always been sort of the focus of my life."

And so many of the characters Tomlin brings to the stage have been a part of her audiences' lives for a long time as well. The characters are imbued with humanity and humility that make them lovable, and Tomlin herself considers them friends. And like her, they change with the times. Even feisty nasally telephone operator Ernestine.

"I could never get tired of doing Ernestine," Tomlin said. "She's lately been working in a health-care insurance corporation denying health care to everyone. She just wants to have a place of power ... Ernestine is particularly adaptable that way because there are a lot of institutions that require somebody who's ruthless and has very few principles."

Tomlin takes the same dedication she pours into her stage shows to her acting roles. Memorizing lines, dealing with directors: They're all elements of her art.

"You adapt," Tomlin said. "You hope you bring the right mix to begin with and there's going to be a little shaping along the way."

But adapting doesn't mean relinquishing control or stifling emotions. Sometimes the passion that goes into a role isn't just turned off when the director yells, "Cut!"

Between takes on the set of the 2004 I Heart Huckabees, the cameras were still rolling when Tomlin exchanged heated words with director David O. Russell and again later with co-star Dustin Hoffman. Nearly four years after Huckabees was released, both videos became YouTube sensations.

"I was doing an interview much like this one morning with someone in Miami and he said, 'So what do you think about this film on YouTube?'" I said, 'I don't know. What is it?'"

It was the first she'd heard of it. By the time the videos appeared on YouTube, they'd been around for awhile, and it never occurred to Tomlin that they would end up on the Internet. But as far as Tomlin is concerned, what's done is done. She has accepted that the incidents happened and has moved on. And it hasn't seemed to hurt her. She still has plenty of work. She's already flown back and forth to New York a couple of times to tape one of the six episodes she's appearing in on the critically acclaimed FX channel drama Damages, which stars Glenn Close.

Regardless of her fame, Tomlin appears both down-to-earth and quite approachable. Having watched Tomlin for years both onscreen and onstage, it's easy to feel like she and her characters are people you know. Like neighbors. Just be careful what you say around Edith Ann: It won't be long before the whole neighborhood knows your business.