Lily Tomlin has been making us laugh, cry and think for five decades. For this and for many other reasons, she is the 2022 recipient of the AARP Movies for Grownups Career Achievement Award. She will be honored at the 20th-anniversary awards ceremony, which will be broadcast on Friday, March 18, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS’ Great Performances, hosted by Alan Cumming.
Tomlin, 82, burst into boomers’ consciousness on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, as telephone operator Ernestine (“Is this the party to whom I am speaking?”). Generations have grown up with her as Valerie Frizzle, the kooky teacher on The Magic School Bus (both the 1994 original and 2017 Netflix reboot), who inspires kids to “take chances, make mistakes and get messy!”
In a trailblazing career, she’s taken big risks that keep paying off, in roles that are legendary for offering insights while cracking us up — from the shy office feminist in 9 to 5 (1980) to the two-fisted septuagenarian in Grandma (2015) and the art teacher-turned-entrepreneur in her current hit Grace and Frankie. She makes a big impact even in smaller roles — such as Web Therapy’s funniest character, therapist Lisa Kudrow’s awful mom, Putsy Hodge — and has enhanced countless TV favorites, including The West Wing, Desperate Housewives and NCIS. Always, she makes laughter serve a serious purpose: Tomlin has described Grace and Frankie as a “show that inspires people to have hope for aging.”
Time magazine dubbed her “America’s New Queen of Comedy” in 1977, yet she’s also made an indelible mark in dramatic roles, earning an Oscar nomination for her first film appearance, as a gospel singer raising hearing-impaired children in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975). Although she’s turned in iconic comedic performances — as a spirit possessing Steve Martin’s body in All of Me (1984) and as Ben Stiller’s Grateful Dead-obsessed mother in Flirting With Disaster (1996) — she’s just as accomplished as a gumshoe in the intergenerational murder mystery The Late Show (1977) and a hard-luck waitress in another Altman film, Short Cuts (1993).
Tomlin has won six Primetime Emmys and one Daytime Emmy, two Tony Awards, a Grammy, two Peabody Awards and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, in addition to being a Kennedy Center Honoree. The secret of her success is, in part, her long-term personal and creative relationships. Her wife, Jane Wagner, helped Tomlin perfect her Edith Ann character on Laugh-In in 1969 and wrote her smash 1985 stage show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (a revival is currently running in New York City). Tomlin’s collaboration with Jane Fonda, which began with 9 to 5, continues on Grace and Frankie and in their upcoming film, Moving On.
And she does indeed keep moving on, in a career that thrives at the cutting edge of our culture. As Tomlin likes to say, “The road to success is always under construction.”
Tomlin joins a list of previous AARP Movies for Grownups Career Achievement honorees, including Annette Bening, George Clooney, Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Shirley MacLaine, Helen Mirren, Robert Redford, Susan Sarandon and Sharon Stone.
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.