I asked Lily Tomlin a question that really seems to fire her up: What impact did the New York of the sixties have on her? “Really, a lot,” she muses. “I first came to New York in ’62 because I’d gotten into a show in college, and for the first time I consciously created a character. It was pegged to the fact that Grosse Pointe [an affluent suburb of her hometown Detroit] was covertly segregated, which had just been exposed, the little bit I did was very relevant, I thought oh God maybe I can make a living doing this, maybe I should try my luck in New York.
“When I first came here I lived with a friend, Jenny, who I knew very slightly in college. She was living with a guy, Jerry, who thought he was carrying the legacy of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline who had just died that year. They didn’t speak, they hated each other. At eye level they would curse each other—‘I hate you, your mother’s dirt.’ So in I come like Holly Golightly — that was the year ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ came out, and I was profoundly influenced by that. I could show you photographs where I had major Audrey Hepburn damage.
“So I get to New York I borrow nine dollars from five people, I go to the thrift shop where by some lightening of god there was some cream-colored trench coat like Audrey wore in the movie, and I got my hair up like hers. And I immediately am going to clean up the apartment and get rid of the roaches, and I painted the whole place. I eventually got an apartment up on the fifth floor. A couple of gay guys had lived there and it was fantastically finished. I was so lucky to get this apartment, the windowsills in those old tenements are cover with years of different paints, but these were all sanded down beautifully, it was like living at the Pierre Hotel or something.
It wasn’t easy going for a performer as idiosyncratic as Tomlin, however. “In those days, even in the bohemian East Village women weren’t artists,” she recalls. “Nobody believed even in musicians – you had to be a composer, you were nothing if you were only an interpretive artist like an actor or musician, you had to be a playwright or composer to be taken seriously. To be an actress was just so narcissistic,” she laughs.
“So I went to the American Mime Theater, and lasted about three weeks because it was so movement-driven, and of course I loved words, so I wasn’t going to be happy being a mime. Everybody there was so physically gifted anyway; they’d fall from one end of this huge dance studio to the other wall, and do it differently each time. I didn’t think I wanted to put in that kind of work to just fall from one end of the room to the other, because I could do a fairly decent job of that anyway, and when I got there I’d rather say something, or better yet, say something on the way—and that’s what I’m still doing today!”