- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

The versatile Lily Tomlin — sketch comic, monologist and actress — has been selected as this year’s recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the Kennedy Center announced Tuesday.

Miss Tomlin, the sixth winner of the prestigious award, will receive the statuette Oct. 26 at the Kennedy Center. The ceremony will be aired later on WETA-TV.

The winner of the award is selected by a panel of four comedy producers — Mark Krantz, John Schreiber, and Bob and Peter Kaminsky — in consultation with the Kennedy Center’s artistic committee.

Miss Tomlin’s career has thrived for decades, driven by her dry wit, gift for comic characterization and her facility in a variety of mediums.

Enduring Tomlin comic personae include Ernestine, the snorting telephone operator, and Edith Ann, the pint-size moppet permanently dwarfed by a giant chair, who declared, “and that’s the truth,” before serving up a spitty raspberry salute.

“I am truly honored to be recognized in the name of Mark Twain, an American humorist who was beloved throughout his lifetime and beyond, even as he imparted a strong and vital social consciousness that still resonates today,” Miss Tomlin, 63, said in a statement.

The performer’s heady list of entertainment awards includes six Emmys, two Tonys and a Grammy for her comedy album, “This Is a Recording.”

She shone on the big screen as a fed-up employee in the box-office hit “Nine to Five” (1980) and as Steve Martin’s ethereal better half in Carl Reiner’s “All of Me” (1984).

Her one-woman Broadway shows, created along with her partner, Jane Wagner, may have best showcased her talents. Both “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” and “Appearing Nightly” allowed Miss Tomlin to display her broad range, playing such diverse characters as Crystal, the hang-gliding quadriplegic, and Sister Boogie Woman, a 77-year-old blues singer.

A new generation has gotten to know her through her vocal work as science teacher Ms. Frizzle on the animated children’s show “The Magic School Bus,” for which she earned an Emmy.

Miss Tomlin’s profile has shrunk in recent years, although she still lands choice roles, such as President Bartlett’s assistant, Debbie Fiderer, in NBC’s “The West Wing.” She also is slated to appear in director David O. Russell’s next film, tentatively titled “I Love Huckabee’s,” alongside Mark Wahlberg.

With those squinty eyes and a can’t-fool-me grin, Miss Tomlin has been making us laugh — and think — for decades.

Born Mary Jean Tomlin in 1939, the comedian grew up in the working-class outskirts of Detroit. Weaned on the work of Lucille Ball and Imogene Coca, Miss Tomlin attended Wayne State University. There, she studied for a career in medicine before a smattering of theatrical classes squeezed in between required courses impelled her to try her hand at comedy. She began entertaining crowds at local coffee shops but soon moved her act to New York City.

From there, she made a few television appearances, which paved the way for regular work on the era’s premier comedy showcase, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” The ensemble show became a national phenomenon whose cultural influence was acknowledged implicitly by President Nixon—who, in a bid to show his lighter side, appeared on the program with a dour demand to “Sock it to me.”

Two of Miss Tomlin’s recurring comic characters and their signature tag lines — Ernestine (“one ringy-dingy …”) and Edith Ann (“and that’s the truth”) — entered the nation’s popular consciousness, and the comedian was propelled to stardom.

She followed “Laugh-In” with a skein of television specials created with Miss Wagner, who would become a frequent collaborator. This small-screen work earned her three of her six Emmys.

Despite her professional beginnings in comedy, she easily switched gears for dramatic projects, but Miss Tomlin’s success in films has been mixed. She received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Linnea Reese, the compassionate mother of a deaf child, in Robert Altman’s “Nashville” (1975), her big-screen debut. She turned in critically praised performances opposite Art Carney in “The Late Show” (1977) and in Mr. Altman’s ensemble piece “Short Cuts” (1993). However, offsetting hits such as “Nine to Five” were the lackluster “Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981) or, much worse, 1978’s “Moment by Moment,” considered one of the decade’s biggest bombs.

The actress also has quietly supported gay-friendly projects, including supplying the narration for “The Celluloid Closet,” a film examining homosexuality on-screen, and the upcoming Lily Tomlin-Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center in Los Angeles.

Through the years, television has been a dependable outlet for her unique gifts. She joined the cast of CBS’ “Murphy Brown” toward its end to pump new life into the flagging series. Her inimitable face also appeared on such prestige dramas as “The X-Files” and “Homicide.”

The performer shows no sign of slowing down.

Miss Tomlin begins an eight-week revival of her one-woman play “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” today at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

Previous Mark Twain Prize winners are Bob Newhart, Whoopi Goldberg, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor.

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