She is best known for creating a multitude of memorable comic characters, including Ernestine the telephone operator and the rotten five-year-old rugrat Edith Ann, on television and in her stage shows, but let it not be forgotten that Lily Tomlin is also a talented dramatic actress, something she has thus far only demonstrated in two films. She was born Mary Tomlin in Detroit, MI. She was studying premed at Wayne State University when she heard the stage calling and so dropped out to perform skits and characterizations in cabarets and coffeehouses.
Tomlin made her television debut on The Garry Moore Show but didn't get her first real break until she became a regular on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In in 1970 and stayed through 1973. The series' machine gun pace proved the perfect outlet for Tomlin's offbeat humor and gave her the opportunity to hone her skills and develop her characters. She made an auspicious film debut with a touching dramatic role as a troubled gospel singer trying to deal with her hearing-impaired children and a womanizing Keith Carradine in Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), winning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress and a New York Film Critics award for the same category.
Her next film, The Late Show (1977), was also more dramatic than comic and Tomlin again won kudos, though not in the form of awards, for her work. While she started off strongly in films, her subsequent output has been of uneven quality ranging from the entertaining All of Me (1984) to the abysmal Big Business (1988). But while her film career has never quite taken flight, Tomlin remained successful on-stage, in clubs, and on television. On Broadway, Tomlin has had two successful one-woman shows, Appearing Nitely (1976) and The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1986), which Tomlin made into a film in 1991.
In 1996, Tomlin became a regular on the cast of the long-running sitcom Murphy Brown playing a canny news producer and foil for Candice Bergan's Murphy. That same year she would work for the first time with director David O. Russell on the film Flirting With Disaster. After returning to film with the demise of Murphy Brown, Tomlin took on supporting roles in a variety of films, such as Tea with Mussolini and Disney's The Kid. But television soon came calling again in the form of a recurring role on NBC's The West Wing as The President's eccentric personal secretary.
In 2004, Tomlin teamed with Russell again for the ensemble comedy I Heart Huckabees. A subsequent visit to the animated town of Springfield found Tomlin dropping in on The Simpsons the following year, withg recurring roles on both Will and Grace and The West Wing preceding a turn as one-half of a sisterly singing act along with Meryl Streep in the 2006 Robert Altman radio-show adaptation A Prairie Home Companion. At the Oscar telecast in 2006 Streep and Tomlin presented Altman with a lifetime achievement award, delivering their speech in a style that emulated the distinctive rhythms of his films. That same year she leant her vocal talents to an animated film for the first time in her career providing the voice for Mommo in The Ant Bully, which coincidently also featured her Prairie Home Companion cohort Meryl Streep. She had a major role in Paul Schrader's The Walker, and provided a voice in the English-language version of Ponyo. She joined the cast of the award-winning cable series Damages in 2010 for that show's third season and was a series regular on Malibu Country in 2012-13, playing Reba McEntire's mother.