BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Comedy icon Lily Tomlin says she “incredibly proud of the younger generation who’ve come out and refuse not to be acknowledged.”
“Not that there isn’t lots of backlash,” says the movie, stage and TV star, who has lived much of her professional life as an out lesbian.
Tomlin, 72, who performs in concert Sunday night at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, says that in 1975 Time magazine “offered me the cover if I’d come out in a very public way.”
The alter ego of Ernestine the telephone operator and 5-year-old Edith Ann declined. “Too cheesy” an offer, Tomlin says. “They just needed a gay person.” After she said no, Time put Air Force Technical Sgt. Leonard Matlovich on the cover with a big, bold headline, “I Am a Homosexual.”
Unable to let the moment pass, Tomlin included a sketch on her 1975 comedy album, Modern Scream, in which she mocked straight actors who play gay and then — always — declare their heterosexuality to reporters.
In the sketch, Tomlin plays a lesbian actress being interviewed about playing straight: “What was it like on the big screen making love to a man?”
“It ends up you don’t have to be one to play one,” jokes Tomlin, who has won two Tony Awards, a Grammy, and several Emmys. (The 1975 Robert Altman film Nashville also brought her an Oscar nomination.)
She calls the Modern Scream sketch a “much hipper, more artistic way to make that statement.”
“But don’t misunderstand me,” Tomlin adds. “It would have taken a tremendous amount of guts and I don’t know if I could have handled it.”
Tomlin’s career throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s was red hot: Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on TV; The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe on Broadway; 9 to 5 with co-stars Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton in the movies.
Her comedy persona sometimes worked against Tomlin, as it did in 1976. “I wanted the Sybil part in television that Sally Field did,” she says. “They were interested in me, but they were afraid I would be funny as the different characters.”
That disappointment pales to what came next: the big screen’s Moment by Moment, co-starring Tomlin and John Travolta (just after Saturday Night Fever and Grease); and written and directed by her longtime partner and collaborator, Jane Wagner.
Critics and audiences trashed the 1978 film. “That was a very tough time. Tough for John. Tough for Jane,” Tomlin says.
The movie’s premise: Tomlin’s middle-age, wealthy character takes a much younger lover, Travolta.
Her last word on the subject: “You don’t have to be one to play one.”
IF YOU GO
Lily Tomlin appears 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Adrienne Arsht Center Knight Concert Hall, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami Tickets from $30 to $80. www.arshtcenter.org.