Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Tomlin, Lily

Prolific comedian Lily Tomlin (born Mary Jean Tomlin) was born and raised on Detroit’s west side. Tomlin lived at Hazelwood and Bryon streets in the Virginia Park neighborhood where she attended Crosman Elementary and Hutchins Junior High. After graduating from Cass Technical High School, Tomlin studied biology at Wayne State University before applying her talents to theater. When Tomlin told her mother that she wanted to go into show business, her mother replied, “nobody is ever going to pay good money to see people from the neighborhood.” Tomlin left Detroit for New York City to pursue her career. 

After working in New York City’s comedy clubs, Tomlin’s big break happened in 1969 when she performed on NBC’s Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a sketch comedy show. Her characters Ernestine, Edith Ann, and Mrs. Judith Beasley caught the public’s attention. Tomlin brought her characters to the stage in Saturday Night Live’s “Studio 8H.” Unafraid to tackle controversy or taboo, Tomlin broke new ground in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in 1985. The one-woman play, written by her partner of over fifty years Jane Wagner, attracted both praise and criticism for its unapologetic feminism. Tomlin is also well remembered as Violet Newstead in the film 9 to 5, Ms. Frizzle in the Magic School Bus, and Debbie Fiderer on the West Wing.  

For decades, Tomlin has been a tireless advocate for civil rights, the gay community, and the working class. Tomlin’s work has earned her the respect of her peers and generations of fans. For her work, her peers have awarded her two Tony Awards, two Drama Desk Awards, a Grammy Award, six Emmy awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award, the Mark Twain Prize, and an Academy Award nomination. Tomlin was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2014, Tomlin was honored by President Barack Obama at the Kennedy Center Honors.