- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 16, 2002

LOS ANGELES
The mourning period was suitable. It has been more than a year since beloved White House secretary Dolores Landingham was laid to rest on "The West Wing." Still, we would be ready to resent just about anyone who tried to replace Mrs. Landingham. As played by Kathryn Joosten, she was not only a moral bulwark for Martin Sheen's President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet, but a pistol to boot.
Then Lily Tomlin walked in as Debbie Fiderer, and the world was right again. Smart, gutsy and eccentric, Fiderer promises to keep Bartlet on his toes. And Miss Tomlin, once again, reminds us what a treasure she is.
Don't try telling her that, though. The actress, who burst upon the TV scene as the supercilious telephone operator Ernestine and know-it-all urchin Edith Ann in "Laugh-In," the comedy hit of the late 1960s, followed that success with dramatic turns in "Nashville" and other films and ambitious one-woman plays. Yet she is a model of modesty.
She's also a charmingly haphazard storyteller and the possessor of one of the great celebrity smiles, an impish kid-who-ate-all-the-cookies grin that lights up her face and puts Julia Roberts to shame.
Over lunch at a Studio City restaurant down the street from her office, Miss Tomlin reveals that she daydreamed about a "West Wing" guest role, maybe as a tart-tongued politician modeled after former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
"I liked the show immensely. I thought the writing was just terrific," she says of the NBC series, which received its third consecutive best-drama Emmy Award last month. (It airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays.)
Miss Tomlin, 63, has approached other series she admired, gaining guest roles on "Homicide: Life on the Street" and a memorable "The X-Files" episode in which she and Ed Asner were paired as mischievous married ghosts.
"I thought it would be nice if I could suggest an idea to 'West Wing,' but then you let those things drift because you think, 'Well, I might get rejected. Maybe they don't even want me to be on the show,'" she says.
The planets aligned for her when Miss Tomlin was appearing in a New York revival of "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" and Thomas Schlamme, an executive producer of "The West Wing," was in the audience.
"A friend sat near Schlamme and heard him say, 'Lily would be great on the show,'" Miss Tomlin recalls. "That really perked me up. Then I got on the case."
She didn't expect to follow Miss Joosten "She's such a darling actress, and funny" as top-dog secretary but clearly relishes the role. She's scheduled to appear in 10 episodes this season.
"The language is very dense, filled with ideas and intelligence and observations and questions. And everybody's supposed to be extremely intelligent and fairly witty," she says with a small, self-mocking laugh.
She happily recites a choice bit of dialogue from the season's opening episode. "What I lack in memory I more than make up for in deductive reasoning," the president tells Fiderer during a rocky job interview.
"Does that come with tights and a cape?" she replies, prompting an annoyed Bartlet to declare, "I think the meeting's over."
"Yes, but let's do this every once in a while," the spunky Fiderer says.
Make that spunky and mysterious. So far, we know that Fiderer was fired from a previous White House post because she stepped on bureaucratic toes while helping Charlie (Dule Hill) get hired as the president's aide.
Fiderer's subsequent colorful job history as gambler and alpaca farmer has been sketched in, along with some evidence of political activism, but her personal life remains unknown.
Miss Tomlin, worried about offending "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, is reluctant to reveal any unaired plot points. She starts to tell about the time she talked about notoriously secretive Woody Allen during production of his "Shadows and Fog" (1992) and then stops.
"Don't let me digress because I can digress from here to the parking lot," she warns.
That's part of Miss Tomlin's charm, a stream-of-consciousness approach that echoes her theater work, including "Intelligent Life," which features her as more than a dozen characters and was written by longtime partner Jane Wagner. (Miss Tomlin returns in the play next spring in Los Angeles.)
Onstage, that translates to a flow of memorable lines, including: "I've always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific." In life, it means Miss Tomlin jumps from describing the back story she has created for Fiderer (she plans to post it on her Web site) to telling how she felt like a social nerd around "Tea With Mussolini" movie co-stars Maggie Smith and Cher, to missed career opportunities.
For instance, she sorely wanted to appear on "The Lawrence Welk Show" in the guise of lounge singer Bobbi Jeanine, and she wrote to Britain's Prince Charles and then-Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 about another comic alter ego.
"I wanted to have Tommy Velour sing at their wedding," Miss Tomlin says, smiling fondly at the thought of playing the cheesy guy with the pencil-thin mustache for royalty.
Mrs. Landingham would not have approved.
Mrs. Fiderer, however, just might.


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