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Lily Tomlin Remembers Getting Her Equity Card With ‘World of Illusion’

Lily Tomlin received her fourth consecutive Emmy nomination this year for Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” which she generously calls “very much an ensemble” show. The half-hour has been renewed for a fifth season, which starts next year. The actress is also set to appear in the recently announced “9 to 5” movie sequel, with Dolly Parton and “Grace” co-star Jane Fonda.

Tomlin drew her first Variety mention on July 1, 1964, in a review of the New York stage show “World of Illusion.” Her stage success led to TV work, and her big breakthrough came when she joined NBC hit “Laugh-In” in 1969.

She has won a Grammy Award, two Tonys and five Emmys (out of 25 Emmy nominations), and she received an Oscar nom for her film debut in the 1975 movie “Nashville.” She still performs regularly onstage, and her work for Actors & Others for Animals is among her many charitable pursuits.

Do you remember “World of Illusion”?

I got my Equity card then. My real name is Mary Jean. My mother’s name is Lily, and I heard that they were looking for English couples to do a revue. I was going to get my brother to go with me as Guy and Lily Tomlin. It was terrific to get my Equity card.

But that wasn’t your first show.

I’d done a lot of shows. My first cabaret was in the Downstairs room at [New York’s] Upstairs at the Downstairs in a show called “Below the Belt.” There were three girls, Madeline Kahn, Dixie Carter and me, and three boys. Garry Moore was the comedian-host. I was the character woman. Madeline got me the job.

How did you get cast in “Laugh-In”?

I was doing a barefoot tap-dance at a revue, and [“Laugh-In” producer] George Schlatter happened to see my act. He didn’t hire me then, but he hired me later. George was the only person who really got me. I did all the characters, and he loved them all. When I went to “Laugh-In,” I was already accepted. I was able to say, “This is homophobic, sexist. I won’t say it.” Jokes against women and gay people were de rigueur. So they got someone else to say it.

You continued to do live performances?

I did so much stuff, very off the cuff. I might be on TV, but I would also be doing shows. I had a storefront stage. I would always say, “No actors, no props, no costumes, no refunds.” You had to take a fan quiz to come in. I would go as Mrs. Beasley [one of her characters], dressed in an old ’40s Red Cross outfit, and pass out coffee and doughnuts to people in line.

When did you cross over into movies?

“Nashville” was my first movie. Sam Cohn, my agent, was also agent to Robert Altman. Louise Fletcher was supposed to play the “Nashville” role. People thought of me as Ernestine from “Laugh-In”; in those days, I didn’t know TV people couldn’t cross over to movies, since Goldie Hawn was able to cross over from “Laugh-In” to her first movie [“Cactus Flower”]. I also optioned “Maiden” [a novel by Cynthia Buchanan]. I thought it was fabulous; she was totally authentic. I wanted Warren Beatty to play the dentist. Bob Altman was looking for a movie for the writer to direct. [My partner] Jane Wagner had written a screenplay for Altman. The suits from Columbia owned “Maiden.” Bob punched one of the suits and he fell in the pool, and “Maiden” never got made.

You became part of Robert Altman’s stable of actors.

He liked to have a company of artists. I was supposed to be in “Prêt-à-Porter,” but I couldn’t do it because there was supposed to be a series with my character Ernestine [that never happened]. I let him down, but then got back into his good graces.

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