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Lily Tomlin’s Most Memorable Emmy Night Was Not Her First Win

In 1974, Lily Tomlin was nominated for two Emmy Awards for her CBS variety special entitled “Lily” — variety special itself, as well as writing for a variety special. Though Tomlin had been nominated for Emmys before, including for her previous CBS special entitled “Lily Tomlin,” she had no expectations of winning and almost didn’t even show up to the ceremony. “It was really only at the prodding of my lawyer that I went,” Tomlin says. “Everybody all night had been saying, ‘This is the night of my life!’ But I kept saying this was not the night of my life because I had had a great baked potato on Wednesday!” Tomlin won both of her categories that year, but it wasn’t her most memorable ceremony — that honor goes to the 1984 ceremony when she showed up as her notorious character, Ernestine.

How did you feel about your chances going into Emmy night in 1974?

I wasn’t even going to go to the Emmys because with the first special I had done huge ratings, but with the second special, the ratings were about half. They had put a Johnny Carson roast against me, and while the ratings were still good, they were nothing like what I had gotten that first year. So I was bereft; I thought my career was over! I wouldn’t even talk to my agent, and I thought they didn’t really want to talk to me.

What did it feel like to share the win with the other writers and producers on your special?

It was absolutely wonderful, and I remember the elation, but unfortunately since I hadn’t planned to go, I didn’t have half the people from the show with me. So I had a dinner at my house afterwards, and I got little Emmy pins for everybody.

How did winning change your outlook on the ceremony, if at all?

It wasn’t winning, so much. I’ve been to so many events, and if I didn’t do anything special there, I’d forget what year they were. So the best one I ever had was when Ernestine got nominated for a performance she did as a take off of “Flashdance” [in my 1984 special “Live … and in Person”]. The conceit was that Ernestine could blackmail anybody, and she had blackmailed Ret Turner into making a beaded dress with a candlestick phone worked into it. So I went to the Emmys, and I came out of the car as Ernestine and posed — like an old ‘40s movie star. And when I got inside the theater, they put me in the second row, right behind Diana Muldaur, who had become the president of the Academy. I leaned forward and said, “Oh Mrs. Muldaur, I’m so excited, this is my first Emmys!” Because it was Ernestine’s first Emmys. And she said, “Well, it may be your last.”

Unfortunately Ernestine’s first time attending the Emmys did not result in a win, though.

No, but I had a black hanky with a big “e” inscribed on it in case I lost. And I had no idea if I was going to be on camera or not, but when Cloris Leachman was announced, Ernestine’s face was just trembling, and then she broke down into tears, ripped out that hanky, and sobbed. They did cut to me, and someone wrote to my agent, “Boy, Lily was really upset that she lost the Emmy last night!”

So how do you approach the Emmys now?

You realize that there are other people that are going to win!

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