A two-time Oscar winner, one of comedy’s top women, a ballet great and two icons of music.
That sort of variety is expected from the Kennedy Center Honors as the yearly event salutes several titans of the performing arts. It’s fulfilled again as Tom Hanks, Sting, Lily Tomlin, Al Green and Patricia McBride receive the tributes from first-time host Stephen Colbert and others in CBS’ telecast of the 37th annual edition Tuesday (Dec. 30).
Taped earlier in the month at the title site in Washington, D.C., the ceremony boasts a talent lineup from Meryl Streep, Bruce Springsteen and David Letterman to Lady Gaga, Whoopi Goldberg and Steven Spielberg. Tomlin can be counted among the most surprised honorees ever — to the degree that she merely glanced at the notice, then tossed it aside.
“I’ve gone to the ceremony a few times,” she tells Zap2it. “I had a letter from [Honors producer] George Stevens Jr., and it started out, ‘We’re celebrating our 37th ceremony.’ And I just put it aside, and it laid on my desk for about a week. Then my partner Jane (Wagner) called me and said, ‘Did you see the letter?’ I said, ‘Yeah, just inviting us to the ceremony.’ And she said, ‘No, I think they want to honor you.’ ”
Tomlin still didn’t buy it: “I said, ‘Oh, no. I know that’s not true.’ And she said, ‘Go read it again,’ and then I just couldn’t believe it. I frankly never thought I would get the Kennedy Center Honors, because I have the Mark Twain Prize (which the Center also awards). And then, I was excited!”
Surely no stranger to accolades, Tomlin also owns four Emmys, two Tonys and a Grammy. They span a career that has touched television (“Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” “Murphy Brown,” “The West Wing”), movies (“Nashville,” “9 to 5,” “All of Me”), stage (“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”) and records (“This Is a Recording,” showcasing her phone-operator character Ernestine).
As for those she’s receiving the Kennedy Center Honors with, Tomlin says, “I like this company very much. I met Tom Hanks when he started out, and I’ve used Al Green’s music in a couple of projects. I used ‘Let’s Stay Together’ in a 1973 television special, then it was used very significantly in ‘The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.’ “
Reunited with fellow “9 to 5” star Jane Fonda (who also appears in the Kennedy Center salute) in the upcoming Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” Tomlin went into the Honors with no expectations for how her tribute might play out … though it would be surprising if her famous alter egos Ernestine, Edith Ann and Mrs. Beasley didn’t make appearances.
“It’s, like, a five-minute film [biography] and a couple of people speaking about you,” Tomlin acknowledges, “so it’s how they choose to express it. It’s just the fun of it, and the excitement of it. You wonder if they’ll have a parade of Ernestines walking across the stage.”
Still, one thing is certain with such an occasion, Tomlin knows.
“You have to get your garments together,” she muses. “Whenever I’d do a fashion thing, I’d always quote Thoreau when he said, ‘Beware of the enterprise that requires new clothing.'”