In 'Admission,' 'Malibu,' Tomlin remembers mama

In this Friday, March 15, 2013 photo, actress Lily Tomlin poses for a portrait at the Four Seasons Hotel, in Los Angeles. For Tomlin, 70 is the new 30, at least momentarily. In the Paul Weitz directed comedy "Admission," opening March 22, Tomlin plays the young-at-heart feminist mother of a university admissions officer, portrayed by Tina Fey. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

March 21, 2013 8:12:13 AM PDT
For a moment, Lily Tomlin was 73 going on 40.

In the comedy "Admission," starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, Tomlin plays the young-at-heart seventy-something feminist mother of Fey's university admissions officer.

"When we first sat down, I think I'm their age," Tomlin recalled. "They started asking me about 'Nine to Five' and '(The Incredible) Shrinking Woman.' Ha ... they were like 10, 12 years old (when I did those things)."

Like "Admission," which opens Friday, Tomlin's story is very much that of a daughter and mother. Born Mary Jean Tomlin, the comic and actress has been paying homage to her mom since the start of her career, when she adopted "Lily" as a stage name.

"(She) lived to be 91 and was somewhat infirmed by the time she was in her late 80s," Tomlin said. "But she still was funny and wonderful and sweet, so I doubt she felt that old, either."

On her current ABC sitcom "Malibu Country," Tomlin plays the swingin' mother of a newly single daughter (played by Reba McEntire). Tomlin said she asked that her character be renamed Lillie Mae. "I wanted to play someone that age who was just full of life."

Much of Tomlin's life has been spent with writer and life partner Jane Wagner.

Contrary to recent reports, talk-show legend Johnny Carson "didn't out me or try to out me," Tomlin clarified. "He was just being a host and saying conventional stuff. You know: 'You're not married. Don't you want to have children?' ... (These were things) they would ask a female in the early '70s."

Being out, at least within showbiz circles, certainly hasn't hurt Tomlin's career, which includes five Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards, a Grammy Award, two Peabody Awards and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

"I was speaking at (the late Texas governor) Ann Richards' school in Austin," Tomlin remembered, noting that the youngsters only knew her as the voice of the inspirational Ms. Frizzle on the 1990s kids cartoon show "The Magic School Bus."

"One little girl stands up, she had to be 9 years old, and she said, 'Well, what do you think you've contributed to the world with your work?' And I was just stopped dead cold. And I finally said to her, 'I hope that I've made people feel connected to one another.'

"And I'd so hoped that she'd had more knowledge of my career so she could say, 'Well, frankly, here's what I think,'" Tomlin added, with a laugh.